The U.S. Supreme Court, which has curtailed its own operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, is preparing to decide whether to block President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates for large corporations and healthcare professionals in a test of the president’s powers to resolve a relentless public health crisis.
The court will hear personal arguments on Friday about emergency requests in two separate cases from challengers, including business groups, religious entities and various Republican-led U.S. states for orders blocking vaccine requirements, with rulings expected shortly. The challengers claim that Biden and his administration have exceeded their authority.
The court’s 6-3 conservative majority in the past has shown skepticism about extensive actions by federal agencies.
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Decisions against Biden could hamper his ability to make a broad effort to tackle a pandemic that has already cost about 830,000 Americans their lives, with COVID-19 cases driven by the coronavirus omicron variant growing nationwide.
The nine judges have spent the bulk of the pandemic working remotely. When the court returned to personal oral arguments in October for the first time since the early stages of the pandemic, the few people allowed to attend were required to wear masks and maintain social distance. Among the judges, only Sonia Sotomayor wore a mask in the courtroom during the recent altercations.
Members of the public are still barred from entering the courthouse as they have been since March 2020. Lawyers and journalists are required to take COVID-19 tests to gain access, even though the court has not required proof of vaccination.
A court representative said all nine judges are fully vaccinated and have received booster doses.
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Judges, sometimes divided, have rejected several religiously based challenges to state vaccine claims. Friday’s cases are the first tests of the federal government’s authority to issue its own vaccine mandates.
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In other pandemic-related cases, the court has upheld religious challenges to certain restrictions and ended the federal government’s moratorium on housing evictions, originally introduced under former President Donald Trump.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on December 17 overturned a ban issued by a lower court that had blocked the rule that workers at companies with at least 100 employees must be vaccinated or tested weekly. This mandate, part of Biden’s efforts to increase the U.S. vaccination rate, was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and affects about 80 million workers nationwide.
The mandate for health care workers applies to a majority of the estimated 10.3 million Americans working in health care facilities who receive money under Medicaid and Medicare government programs. The bid’s administration is asking the Supreme Court to overturn orders from federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana that block the policies of half of the 50 U.S. states while lawsuits over the legal legitimacy of the mandate continue.
In both cases, the challengers argued that the federal government exceeded its authority by issuing demands that were not specifically approved by Congress, citing Supreme Court rulings that limited the power of federal authorities over tobacco and greenhouse gas regulations. Both vaccine mandates are of sufficient economic and political importance to demand a “clear statement” from Congress, according to the challengers.
Deepak Gupta, a lawyer who has filed briefs in support of mandates, said this argument raised by the challengers is problematic.
“It allows non-elected judges to decide that there are certain issues they think are important enough to require a clear opinion on the specific issue,” Gupta said.
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Some legal experts suspect that the mandate of healthcare professionals has a better chance of surviving the Supreme Court review because the regulation only covers facilities that decide to accept patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare.
“This is only a condition of participation in a federal program, not a direct regulation. Second, and pragmatically, judges can hesitate before ordering a vaccine mandate for health care professionals,” said Sean Marotta, an attorney representing the American Hospital Association. , an industry group for healthcare providers not involved in the lawsuit.
The clock is ticking for the judges.
The bid’s administration has said it will begin demanding compliance with health care policy next Monday, though companies will have until Feb. 9 to set up test programs. In those states where this regulation has not been blocked, workers must be fully vaccinated by 28 February.
Employers are currently uncertain about how to proceed, with some concerned about losing staff in a tight labor market if they impose vaccine or test requirements, said Todd Logsdon, a Louisville-based Kentucky lawyer representing companies on safety at the workplace.
“The sooner they can issue the decision, the better,” Logsdon said of the Supreme Court.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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