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County judges' authority limited under Gov. Abbott's newest executive order

Mask sign
Posted at 5:07 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 20:30:52-05

As of Wednesday, March 10, the mask mandate across the Lone Star State will be no more and all businesses can go back to 100% capacity.

Throughout the pandemic, Governor Greg Abbott has been calling most of the shots as far as what counties can and can't do. When his newest executive order takes effect Wednesday, county judges will have the power to reimpose some capacity restrictions if hospitalizations exceeded 15% within the 22 trauma zones across the state.

However, they cannot reduce capacity below 50%. Other than that, everything else is in the hands of the governor.

“In regard to face coverings, his office [Gov. Abbott] and his office alone is the one that can determine whether or not that mandate is reinstated to or not. Governor's order indicated that if we reach 15% of our hospital capacity occupied by COVID patients, then the county judge may impose some occupancy restrictions or occupancy limits on businesses in the county,” explained Bell County Judge David Balckburn.

A county judge's authority over their jurisdiction has been limited since Gov. Abbott declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in March 2020, but it hasn’t always been that way.

“Before this pandemic, counties did have a little bit broader authority,” said Judge Blackburn.

"By taking executive action and declaring a state of emergency, it removes the discretion of county judges to make those localized decisions. Although Abbott has given some authority back to judges, he still holds most of the power," said Dr. Jeffery Dixon, professor of Political Science at A&M Central TX. "County judges are elected officials of the county. They had a certain amount of authority to decide county, not policy, but how certain state laws would apply to that county. He basically delegated power to reopen but not necessarily to refuse to reopen,”

Once the State of Emergency is lifted, county-wide decisions would fall back into the hands of those judges. However, Gov. Abbott extended the COVID-19 Disaster Declaration, so it's unclear when the State of Emergency could be lifted.