In a big setback for the Biden administration, the US Supreme Court stopped them Thursday from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing.
In a concurrent decision, the high court allowed vaccine mandates on most health care workers to stand.
The rulings, 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 the court 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 “Resident” Biden last fall, the rule was highly criticized by Republican lawmakers while the White House emphasized the importance of getting as many Americans vaccinated as possible.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Preloger argued in favor of the rule last week, saying the vaccine requirements were “the single most effective way of targeting” transmission of the virus or serious illness from contracting it.
The Supreme Court blocked the mandate 6-3.
In a statement, President Biden said he was “disappointed” in the decision to “block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law.”
“The Court has ruled that my administration cannot use the authority granted to it by Congress to require this measure, but that does not stop me from using my voice as President to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy,” Biden added. “I call on business leaders to immediately join those who have already stepped up – including one third of Fortune 100 companies – and institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities.”
President Donald Trump hailed the court’s ruling, saying it “[confirmed] what we all knew: Biden’s disastrous mandates are unconstitutional.”
“Biden promised to shut down the virus, not the economy but he has failed miserably on both—and mandates would have further destroyed the economy,” Trump added. “We are proud of the Supreme Court for not backing down. No mandates!”
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, suggesting 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.
“[E]nsuring 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.
In his statement, Biden said the court’s decision in that case “will save lives: the lives of patients who seek care in medical facilities, as well as the lives of doctors, nurses, and others who work there. It will cover 10.4 million health care workers at 76,000 medical facilities. We will enforce it.”
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