The Supreme Court has stopped the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.
In a concurrent decision, the High Court approved vaccine mandates on most health care workers.
The decisions, which came during a spike of largely Omicron-variant COVID-19 cases across the US, came down six days after the justices heard arguments in both cases.
The first case dealt with the order from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which would have mandated that businesses with at least 100 employees require their staff be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.
Opponents to the rule argued the agency was overstepping its power. Scott Keller, who represented the National Federation of Independent Business, told the court that even if OSHA had issued just a masking mandate, the agency “doesn’t have the ability to set a nationwide COVID rule by emergency rule.”
The court’s conservative majority concluded the Biden administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the OSHA rule. More than 80 million people would have been affected.
“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.
In dissent, the court’s three liberals — Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.
First introduced by President Biden last fall, the rule was highly criticized by Republican lawmakers while the White House continuously emphasized the importance of getting as many Americans vaccinated as possible.
US Solicitor General Elizabeth Preloger argued in favor of the rule last week, saying the requirements for vaccines is “the single more effective way of targeting” transmission of the virus or serious illness from contracting it.
The Supreme Court blocked the mandate 6-3.
The second rule considered by the court dealt with a mandate issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which required employees at hospitals, nursing homes or other healthcare facilities that receive federal funding to be vaccinated – with some medical or religious exemptions.
During the arguments, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that most hospitals and healthcare providers were in favor of the mandate, pointing to a “missing element” in the argument against it.
In their final opinion, the court ruled that the mandate “fits neatly within the language of the statute,” with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett dissenting.
“The rule thus fits neatly within the language of the statute. After all, 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,” the court wrote. “It would be the ‘very opposite of efficient and effective administration for a facility that is supposed to make people well to make them sick with COVID–19.’”
The justices also pointed to the history of vaccine requirements in healthcare facilities, such as ones for the measles, mumps and rubella.
“We accordingly conclude that the Secretary did not exceed his statutory authority in requiring that, in order to remain eligible for Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the facilities covered by the interim rule must ensure that their employees be vaccinated against COVID–19,” the unsigned opinion read.
With Associated Press