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 sweeping vaccine-or-testing requirements for 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 had unwound a key pandemic policy of the Biden administration, once again concluding that federal officials had exceeded the power given to them by Congress. The court in August blocked Biden’s eviction moratorium, ruling that it, too, amounted to government overreach.
“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 Justice 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 another vaccine mandate on people employed at health care facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That measure, which takes effect this month, is estimated to affect 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.”
And the government, the court ruled, appeared to have that authority.
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.
Biden announced policies in November that cover employers with more than 100 workers, health sites and federal contractors. Large employers were required to stand up vaccine or weekly testing programs or face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.
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
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 law permits the agency to 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 just such a danger.
But 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 is occurring as the omicron variant has sent cases skyrocketing and inundated hospitals.