From John Hanna, The Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday night canceled arguments from attorneys over a civil rights’ group attempt to force the state to release prison inmates with preexisting medical conditions making them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

The high court’s actions came with arguments originally set for Wednesday afternoon in a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas for seven inmates at state prisons in Ellsworth, Lansing and Topeka. A two-page order signed by Justice Marla Luckert sent the case to district court in Leavenworth County, home to the Lansing prison.

The lawsuit argues that the inmates are housed in crowded conditions with limited access to adequate medical care. It also contended that releasing vulnerable inmates would allow proper social distancing and reduce the virus’ transmission among remaining prisoners.

But lawyers for the Department of Corrections and Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office on Tuesday filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and Luckert’s order said the state’s response showed “there are significant issues of fact” that should be settled in district court.

The state has confirmed that 18 inmates and 21 staff at the Lansing prison have tested positive for coronavirus. An inmate at a work-release facility in Wichita also tested positive, prompting the Department of Corrections to move 113 prisoners Sunday night to Lansing.

Gov. Laura Kelly has said efforts are underway to identify inmates who are close to finishing their sentences and can be released.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause a severe illness or death.

Jails already have started shrinking their populations, including one in Sedgwick County that now has nearly 400 fewer inmates.