WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday halted the enforcement of one of President Joe Biden’s signature efforts to combat COVID-19 and ruled that his administration has no authority to impose vaccine or test requirements on employers that would have covered tens of millions of Americans .
The unsigned statement, which came days after judges heard arguments in the emergency appeal, marked the second time the country’s Supreme Court had settled a pandemic policy for the Biden administration, again concluding that federal officials exceeded the power Congress had given them. The court blocked Biden’s moratorium on eviction in August and ruled that it was also a violation.
The workplace case concerned whether the Danish Working Environment Authority had the power to set the requirements under a law from 1970.
“While Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational hazards, 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 into the latter category.”
The decision drew a dissent from the court’s three liberal judges.
“In our view, the court ruling severely abuses the applicable legal standards,” Assistant Judge Stephen Breyer wrote in a statement joining fellow judges Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “And by doing so, it is hampering the ability of the federal government to counter the unique threat that COVID-19 poses to our nation’s workers.”
In another unsigned statement, the court allowed a vaccine mandate on people employed at health facilities receiving federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That measure affects about 10 million workers.
“The challenges of a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not assigned to it,” the court wrote in the separate statement. “At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no reason to restrict the exercise of authority which the Agency has long been recognized to have.”
The government, the court said, seemed to have the authority, at least when it comes to demanding changes in the workplace for medical care, that it pays for.
Four of the court’s conservative judges were dissents.
“These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID-19 vaccines,” Assistant Judge Clarence Thomas wrote. “They are only about whether (the administration) has the statutory authority to force health professionals, by forcing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and can not regret.”
Thomas was joined by Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.
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It was not immediately clear what options the Biden administration has for responding to the ruling. In a statement, the president said he was “disappointed” and it is “now up to states and individual employers to decide whether to make their jobs as safe as possible for employees.”
Labor Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Biden announced policies in November that cover employers with more than 100 workers, health care providers and federal contractors. Major employers were required to set up vaccine or weekly testing programs or face fines of nearly $ 14,000 per year. violation.
The ruling in the big employer case was applauded by conservatives and business groups who brought the case.
“Americans have already lost too much to this disease – we all want this pandemic to end – but it is vital that we do not lose our constitution as well,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican official. who challenged employer rule.
Others said they worry about implications far beyond the pandemic if it makes it harder for federal agencies to respond to an emergency.
“The court is emptying the very power of the federal government to protect Americans,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “Courts overturn decades of precedent that upholds federal public health powers.”
The big employer case was whether the congress gave the Danish Working Environment Authority the authority to require vaccines or tests in a 1970 law. The 1970 law at the center of the employer case allows OSHA to establish an emergency rule when there is a “serious danger” that may expose workers to “substances or agents intended to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards.” Biden officials claimed that COVID-19 posed such a danger.
A majority of the court signaled during oral arguments that it questioned whether Congress could have foreseen that the law was used to resolve a pandemic. Several members of the court’s conservative bloc said the case should be left to states unless Congress approves a more specific authorization for such mandates.
Liberal judges argued that agencies are better positioned than courts to make assessments of rapidly changing public health emergencies. The legal quarrel arises as the omicron variant has sent cases up in the air and flooded hospitals.
The court signaled that it applied a different standard in the case of doctors. Several of the court’s conservatives, most notably Assistant Judge Brett Kavanaugh, wondered why the people most directly affected by the mandate – the doctors, nurses and others who staff hospitals – did not fight against the Biden mandate.
“After all,” the court wrote in its opinion on medical facilities, “to ensure that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is in line with the basic principle of the medical profession: First, no harm. “
Cast: Michael Collins, Maureen Groppe