Conservative members of the Supreme Court appeared skeptical on Friday of the Biden administration’s policies that impose a requirement for a COVID-19 vaccine or test on a large chunk of the U.S. workforce.
Over hours of oral argument, the court’s Conservative majority posed acute questions as to whether a federal workplace law that Congress passed about five decades ago provides the legal authority for a vaccine or testing policy affecting about 84 million workers in large employers.
Conservative judges also appeared to be wary, albeit slightly less, of a separate coronavirus vaccine mandate that applies to the roughly 17 million healthcare workers in hospitals and other facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The tenor of Friday’s back-to-back arguments suggested a split along familiar ideological lines. Questions posed by the court’s six conservative justices reflected concerns about granular details such as the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing spread to others, as well as broader structural issues such as how the he public health authority fits into the country’s constitutional framework.
“It seems to me that the more the mandates multiply in the different agencies, it’s right – I wonder if it is not fair that we look [this] as a general exercise of power by the federal government and then asking the questions of, well, why doesn’t Congress have a say in it, and why the – why doesn’t it is it not the primary responsibility of States? Chief Justice John Roberts asked the Solicitor General.
The three liberals in court appeared primarily concerned about the public health impact that could result from blocking administration policies while challenges unfold in lower courts.
Justice Stephane BreyerStephen Breyer Federal vaccine mandate enters land of ‘big questions’ Overnight healthcare – Presented by AstraZeneca and Friends of Cancer Research – Biden vaccine rules fragile SCOTUS land Conservative judges appear skeptical of vaccine mandates by Biden PLUS, speaking to a lawyer from a set of challengers with the employer’s vaccine or testing mandate, said he found their demand to block the policy “unbelievable” in light of soaring rates of infection amid the spread of the omicron variant.
“How can this be in the public interest,” he asked. âYou have the hospitalization numbers increasing by factors of 10, 10 times what they used to be. You have a hospitalization on file, near the file.
The first case heard on Friday involved a general workplace regulation issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that applies to companies with 100 or more workers, or about two-thirds of the industry. private.
The measure sparked swift legal challenges from interest groups, states and employers across the country who allege that it is an illegal exercise of governmental power and that it has been issued without following proper procedures.
The mandate, which is expected to take effect next week, typically requires employers to adopt written policies requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear masks and undergo weekly tests. The agency estimates that the policy will save the lives of more than 6,500 workers and prevent some 250,000 hospitalizations in six months.
Elizabeth Prelogar, the solicitor general, told judges that the measure “lies at the heart of OSHA’s regulatory authority” under the 1970 law that established it.
“Congress tasked the agency with establishing national standards to protect the health and safety of employees across the country, and Congress specifically earmarked funds for OSHA to fight COVID-19 at the location. working, âshe said.
But his argument was severely rejected by the court’s conservatives on a number of grounds.
A central question was whether the delegation of authority from existing law to OSHA to issue emergency rules that are “necessary” to protect workers from “serious danger” justified the vaccine or test mandate. – or whether Congress should adopt a new, more explicit measure for something this far.
Several questions posed by the court’s conservative justices suggested that their views aligned with the challengers’ argument that a settlement with such profound economic and political ramifications – a “major issue”, in legal parlance – required further authorization from Congress.
Scott Keller, who has advocated for business interest groups, said OSHA’s measure exceeded the authority given by Congress.
âIf Congress intended to give an occupational health agency the power to mandate vaccines across the country, it had to do so clearly. States can do it. Companies have done it and are able to do it, âhe told the judges. âThe question is not what this country will do about COVID. It’s up to him to decide.
Legal challenges to OSHA’s mandate were consolidated in a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court, which reinstated the measure after it was blocked by a separate appeals court.
The Biden administration’s other mandate that was debated in the Supreme Court on Friday is currently on hold in about half of the country after being challenged by separate groups of GOP-led states.
The policy, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, requires vaccines for health workers in hospitals nationwide that receive federal funding. It provides narrow exemptions for religious and medical reasons.
This policy seemed to receive a cold reception from some court conservatives, although on the whole the conservative majority seemed a little less hostile to the first argument of the day.
The government’s main claim in both cases followed a similar argument: that the administration’s bold response had been clearly authorized by Congress.
Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney Barrett Conservative justices appear skeptical of Biden vaccine mandates Progressive congressional caucus backs measure to extend Supreme Court Major 2021 political books MORE, one of the court’s conservatives, appeared to be struggling to decide which decision to make given her apparent view that the Biden administration’s legal rationale for enforcing the warrant in some federally-funded health facilities was stronger than in others.
âIt was an omnibus rule, and even though the secretary, in a table, identified all of these specific provisions, we don’t really have before us the structural and textual arguments directed to each of those provisions. What if I think some do and some don’t? She asked a government lawyer. âIn an omnibus rule, what am I supposed to do?
Challengers in both cases warned that allowing the warrants to take effect would lead to staff shortages.
But one of the liberal members of the Court, Justice Sonia sotomayorSonia SotomayorFederal vaccine mandate enters ‘big question’ Conservative judges appear skeptical of Biden vaccine mandates Constitution does not work MORE, who participated by phone, suggested that warnings about the risk of worker attrition also went in the opposite direction.
“We now have deaths at an unprecedented number,” she said. âCatching COVID keeps people out of the workplace during extraordinary times. “
Updated at 17:13