Gavel

A federal lawsuit challenging a Linn County health officer’s order that required businesses to keep records of who visits their establishments for the purpose of contract tracing COVID-19 cases has been dropped after the original order was amended.

Linn County’s health officer on May 1 ordered restaurants, retail stores, health clinics, dentists, pharmacies, banks, daycare centers and other businesses to compile information on each in-store customer, including the customer’s name and phone number, date of visit, and arrival and departure time.

On May 10, a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas by the Kansas Justice Institute on behalf of Jackie Taylor, owner and publisher of The Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, owner of Nana Jo’s restaurant in La Cygne, who contended the health officer’s order violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

On Monday, May 18, both plaintiffs moved to have their lawsuit dismissed after the health order was revised. The new order allows for businesses to request a warrant or other judicial approval before certain records are disclosed during the COVID pandemic.

Sam MacRoberts of Kansas Justice Institute, who represented Taylor and Hisel, said constitutional rights cannot be ignored even during a pandemic, according to an institute news release.

“I’m happy we found a workable solution for the citizens of the county,” said Jackie Taylor in the news release. “Linn County ultimately did the right thing with this new order, and we’re glad Kansas Justice Institute was there to help.”

The Linn County Commission issued a statement this week that questioned the motives of the plaintiffs and the Kansas Justice Institute.

“A week after filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs dismissed it without any conclusive orders having been issued by the court,” according to the commission statement. “Since that dismissal, the plaintiffs and the justice center, largely through the Linn County News and other media outlets, have publicly worked to create the impression that they accomplished something for the citizens of Linn County that could not have been accomplished otherwise and at less expense.”

The commission said the order objected to by the plaintiffs was authorized by state statute, and its intent was to protect Linn County residents and to facilitate the reopening of business in the county, and that the attitude of the county leadership in regard to revising the order was clearly one of cooperation and flexibility.

“The Plaintiffs have attempted to leave the impression that the county or the county health officer took an adversarial position in regard to certain constitutional freedoms,” the commission said in the statement. “They fail to state, or perhaps to even understand, that as soon as the commission and the county health officer became aware of concerns about elements of the Phase I plan, the county began steps to revise it to accommodate those concerns. They also fail to make it clear that the first notice the county had of their position and concerns was after they had already rushed to federal district court and filed their petition.”

In the statement the commission said the editor of the Linn County News has "styled herself a ‘Freedom Fighter’ for her role in this exercise of publicity seeking. This self-congratulatory title overlooks the fact the no one in Linn County government – not the commission, not the health officer, or anyone else – was seeking to take away freedom from her or any Linn County citizen.

“Rather, the order challenged by this unnecessary lawsuit was one intended to help get Linn County businesses back in operation while protecting the employees and customers of those businesses in a totally unprecedented crisis situation,” the commission said.

MacRoberts, of the Kansas Justice Institute, said Linn County’s idea that their orders help with contact tracing is misguided.

“In order for contact tracing to be effective, the community must be willing to participate,” MacRoberts said. “Heavy-handed mandates and threats won’t work here.”

The commission said in the statement that, the plaintiffs have implied, or perhaps even slated, that their decision to dismiss their lawsuit without receiving any supporting order from the judge was a “victory.” The commission contended that is not the case.

“But even if they had been victors, the losers are the people of Linn County who want and deserve leaders in government, politics and the media, that work together to achieve the best possible outcome for the county, at the least unnecessary cost, and without regard to personal vindictiveness and the desire for attention,” the commission said.

News Editor Doug Carder can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or doug.carder@miconews.com.

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