Supreme Court blocks COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing mandate for workplaces but lets medical rule stand

Supreme Court blocks COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing mandate for workplaces but lets medical rule stand

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday halted enforcement of one of President Joe Biden’s signature efforts to combat COVID-19, ruling that his administration doesn’t have the authority to impose vaccine-or-testing requirements on employers that would have covered tens of millions of Americans.

The unsigned opinion, which came days after the justices heard arguments in the emergency appeal, marked the second time the nation’s highest court unwound a pandemic policy of the Biden administration, again concluding that federal officials exceeded the power given to them by Congress. The court blocked Biden’s eviction moratorium in August, ruling that it also was an overreach.

At issue in the workplace case was whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had the power to impose the requirements under a 1970 law.   

“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” the court wrote. “Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category.”

The decision drew a dissent from the court’s three liberal justices. 

“In our view, the court’s order seriously misapplies the applicable legal standards,” Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “And in so doing, it stymies the federal government’s ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID–19 poses to our nation’s workers.”

The court in a second unsigned opinion permitted a vaccine mandate on people employed at health care facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That measure affects about 10 million workers.

“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it,” the court wrote in the separate opinion. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have.”

The government, the court said, appeared to have that authority, at least when it comes to requiring workplace changes for medical care it pays for. 

Four of the court’s conservative justices dissented.

“These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID-19 vaccines,” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. “They are only about whether (the administration) has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo.”

Thomas was joined by Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

Preview:Biden’s COVID-19 policies face a steep climb at the Supreme Court

Arguments:Supreme Court may block Biden’s workplace COVID-19 mandates

It was not immediately clear what, if any, options the Biden administration has to respond to the ruling. In a statement, the president said he was “disappointed,” and it was “now up to states and individual employers to determine whether to make their workplaces as safe as possible for employees.”

Labor Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden announced policies in November that cover employers with more than 100 workers, health sites and federal contractors. Large employers were required to set up vaccine or weekly testing programs or face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

The ruling in the large employer case was cheered by conservative and business groups that filed the suits.

“Americans have lost too much to this disease already – all of us want this pandemic to end – but it is critical that we do not lose our Constitution, too,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, one of the Republican officials who challenged the employer rule.

Others said they worry about implications far beyond the pandemic if it makes it harder for federal agencies to respond to an emergency.

“The court is eviscerating the very ability of the federal government to protect Americans,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “The justices are overturning decades of precedent upholding federal public health powers.”

At issue in the large employer case was whether Congress gave the Occupational Safety and Health Administration authority to require vaccines or testing in a 1970 law. The 1970 law at the center of the employer case allows  OSHAto set an emergency rule when a “grave danger” exists that could expose workers to “substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards.” Biden officials argued COVID-19 presents such a danger.

A majority of the court signaled during oral arguments that it questioned whether Congress could have foreseen the law being used to address a pandemic. Several members of the court’s conservative bloc said the matter should be left to states unless Congress approves a more specific authorization for such mandates. 

The liberal justices countered that agencies are better positioned than courts to make assessments about rapidly shifting public health emergencies. The legal wrangling occurs as the omicron variant has sent cases skyrocketing and inundated hospitals.

The court signaled it was applying a different standard to the medical worker case. Several of the court’s conservatives, notably Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wondered aloud why the people most directly affected by the mandate – the doctors, nurses and others who staff hospitals – did not fight the Biden mandate.   

“After all,” the court wrote in its opinion on medical facilities, “ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: First, do no harm.”

Contributing: Michael Collins, Maureen Groppe



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