NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is facing a lawsuit over Republican Gov. Bill Lee's decision to let counties issue certain orders to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing specifically on their authority to require people to wear masks.
The group Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, also known as Tennessee Stands, and two individuals filed the lawsuit Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court. Lee is the defendant in his role as governor.
The lawsuit claims a state law dealing with the governor's powers during an emergency violates sections of the Tennessee Constitution, including provisions about the separation of powers.
Lee signed an executive order early last month allowing 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties the option to require face coverings in public. Six larger metro counties with locally governed health departments already had authority to implement their own COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, under Lee's previous orders.
In response to the lawsuit, Lee cited an opinion by the state attorney general and testimony from two prominent legal figures last week when the GOP-led Legislature assembled a panel to look into the governor's emergency powers.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slaterty's opinion cites the law being challenged to describe the governor's ability to delegate duties during an emergency.
Alberto Gonzales, a former U.S. attorney general and current dean at Belmont University's law school, told lawmakers last week that "it's not really a question as to whether or not Gov. Lee, does he have the have the authority to do what he's done. I think perhaps a better use, with all due respect, of the committee's time, is to look at what limitations should there be."
And William Koch, a former state Supreme Court justice and now Nashville School of Law's dean, testified about the governor's emergency broad powers.
"All three of those opinions have been that the decisions have been made according to the statute and the Constitution as it is, so we feel good about the decisions that we've made," Lee said at a news conference Tuesday.
Lee, meanwhile said he's "cautiously optimistic" about Tennessee's COVID-19 trends. For instance, the seven-day rolling average of daily new confirmed cases in Tennessee did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 1,896.86 per day on Aug. 10 to 1,408.57 per day on Aug. 24.
Lee, who has resisted a statewide mask requirement and has stressed personal responsibility, has said the option for local mask mandates offers flexibility.
"I think that giving local leaders the authority to institute what's best for their communities — that's been my approach from the beginning — it appears to be working," Lee said. "But mask requirements are not what has solved the problem. What's solved the problem is behavior of Tennesseans."
Meanwhile, four University of Tennessee at Knoxville students are facing disciplinary proceedings under current COVID-19 safety restrictions.
In an online message Monday, Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote that three students hosted off-campus gatherings with no social distancing or consistent mask use, and a fourth indicated they knew they were COVID-19 positive but left self-isolation to gather with others off campus.
"If the facts reported to the university are accurate, these students will face at least suspension from the university, and potentially greater penalties," Plowman wrote.
The chancellor has warned that students face punishments as stiff as expulsion if they are "irresponsible" in hosting big parties, if they won't cooperate with COVID-19 contact tracing or if they don't complete forms documenting their self-isolation.
Also, the Shelby County Health Department said schools that learn of COVID-19 cases must notify parents, families, staff and other at-risk students. The health department will also begin to regularly distribute the number of cases of children who contract COVID-19 by school district.
The county contains the Shelby County Schools system, which includes Memphis schools and has about 100,000 students. Several Shelby County municipalities also have their own school system.
While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older people and those with existing health problems.
Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.