American Soldiers Salute. US Army.

Vaccine Mandates in the Military: Litigation Over Religious Exemptions

By Kaitlynn Milvert

In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) put in place requirements for service members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Litigation has since ensued over the military branches’ restrictive approach to religious exemptions to vaccination.

On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed into one such case: the Court granted the government’s request for a partial stay to allow the Navy to continue to use vaccination status in making deployment and assignment decisions while the litigation proceeds.

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Supreme Court of the United States.

The Bind We’re in — And How the Supreme Court Put Us There

By Jennifer Bard

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages into its third year of global death and destruction, the Supreme Court of the United States has effectively thwarted every measure by federal or state government to implement the public health tools that for hundreds of years have been used to stop the spread of contagious disease. They have done so by operationalizing what were previously fringe and relatively harmless academic views in ways that extend their powers beyond any previous boundaries. These include, but are not limited to, extending the protection for religious exercise past any previously imagined, and limiting Congressional authority to respond to emergencies by imposing impossible standards of specificity on its delegation of authority to the agencies which it creates, funds, and directly oversees.

In so doing, the Court has not only undermined the health of the nation, and pushed millions of people into unnecessary long-term disability, which our fragmented health care and social security system is unequipped to handle. It has also threatened our national security by infecting what is already more than half of the children in the country with a virus that has the potential to damage every organ in their bodies, from heart to brain.

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Patient receives Covid-19 vaccine.

NFIB v. OSHA and Its Contradiction with the GOP’s Disability Employment Agenda

By Doron Dorfman

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the incoherence of the Republican party’s employment agenda, which, on the one hand, deifies full, in-person employment, and, on the other, makes the workplace hostile to this aim through relentless deregulation.

Throughout the pandemic, the GOP has vocally advanced the narrative that employees must physically return to the office to prevent recession.

Additionally, the conservative view frames disability law and policy in terms of its economic value: these policies are desirable insofar as they increase productivity and participation in the job market among disabled Americans.

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U.S. Supreme Court interior.

Who ‘Deserves’ Health, Who ‘Deserves’ Freedom? A Recurrent Divide in SCOTUS Vaccine Mandate Cases

By Wendy E. Parmet

In October 2020, Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya issued what they called the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). In it, they argued that “The most compassionate approach [to the pandemic] … is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

Eighteen months and over 600,000 additional deaths later, the Supreme Court embraced that view.  On January 13, in Missouri v. Biden (Missouri), the Court by a 5-4 vote refused to stay a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) rule requiring health care workers in facilities that participate in Medicare or Medicaid to be vaccinated against COVID-19 (subject to legally-required exemptions) in order to protect patients. In contrast, in National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor (NFIB), the Court by a 6-3 vote ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) likely exceeded its statutory authority by requiring employers with over 100 employees to mandate vaccination (subject to required exemptions) or masking and testing.  The per curiam majority stated: “Although COVID-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.” Concurring, Justice Gorsuch added that a broad reading of OSHA’s authority would “enable intrusions into the private lives and freedoms of Americans.”

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Washington, DC, USA - Closeup view of December, 23, 2020: COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card by CDC on blurred documents background.

Private Employer Vaccine Mandates in the Courts

By Kaitlynn Milvert

After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers was withdrawn last month, many pronounced private employers to be “on their own” to make decisions about vaccine requirements for their employees.

Until one outlier Fifth Circuit decision last week, federal courts have largely agreed. In lawsuits challenging private employers’ COVID-19 vaccine mandates, federal district courts have routinely denied requests for preliminary injunctions to halt private employers’ vaccination policies from taking effect.

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s Rulings on COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates, Explained

By Kaitlynn Milvert

In a pair of rulings issued January 13, the Supreme Court put on hold the federal vaccine-or-test requirements for large employers, but allowed federal vaccination requirements for health care workers to take effect while they are litigated in the lower federal courts.

The Court decisions each addressed questions of whether federal agencies — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) — have authority to set these vaccination-related requirements.

In doing so, the Court drew new and unprecedented lines between the kinds of risks that agencies operating outside of the health care context — such as OSHA — have power to address through federal regulations. The Court’s decisions on these issues are likely to loom large in future litigation as federal vaccine requirements continue to be litigated in the lower courts.

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Person filling syringe from vial.

The Beginning of the End of Federalism

By Jennifer Bard

Friday’s emergency hearing by the Supreme Court regarding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test mandate was extraordinary both in that it happened at all and what took place.

The hearing came in a response to a petition by a coalition of states and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) to halt an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued by OSHA mandating that all employers with over 100 employees “establish minimum vaccination standards” including “vaccination verification, face covering, and testing requirements.”

That the Court heard the case on an emergency basis signaled their concern that OSHA, in issuing the ETS, was overreaching its authority, as they ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had done in issuing an eviction moratorium.

But what made the colloquies particularly unsettling is that the ETS was carefully crafted to be, as Professors Larry Gostin and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss explain lucidly, well within contemporary standards for an exercise of federal power affecting a health matter usually within the jurisdiction of a state. It applies only to employers already obligated to follow OSHA workplace standards and fell far short of a vaccine mandate. Moreover, however severe the risk of COVID when this was drafted six months ago, the risk from the Omicron variant is many times greater.

Yet the sympathetic ear given by the majority of the Justices to the arguments made by the lawyers seeking a stay made it possible to wonder if the whole thing was happening in either one of DC or the MCU’s multiverse. This is because the questioning, directly and by implication, calls into doubt what past Courts have identified as the framework of federalism — a nickname for the Constitution’s balancing of a strong federal government against the rights of individual states. We cannot know the extent to which the Justices will adopt any of the arguments offered them for limiting federal agency power, but from this hearing we can anticipate substantial strengthening of an individual state’s ability to resist federal regulation.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Major Questions about Vaccine Mandates, the Supreme Court, and the Major Questions Doctrine

By Wendy Parmet and Dorit Reiss

This Friday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about two federal vaccine mandates: the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) mandate for health care workers, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test mandate for employers with over 100 workers. In each case, a key question will be whether the Court should apply the so-called “major questions doctrine.” The Court’s adoption of this approach in the mandate cases would not only remove an important tool for combating the pandemic; it also would severely limit the federal government’s capacity to address many other health threats, while expanding the Court’s ability to substitute its judgment for Congress’.

Although not fully defined or delineated, the major questions doctrine bars administrative agencies from using broad grants of statutory authorities in new and “major” ways. A type of clear statement rule, it requires courts to presume that in the absence of specific Congressional authorization, agencies lack the power to issue new regulations that could be seen as “major.”

In theory, the rule allows courts to avoid federalism and separation of powers concerns. In practice, it empowers courts to resurrect long-discarded approaches to federalism and separation of powers without saying so. It also enables courts to disregard explicit grants of statutory authority (so much for textualism!).

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Close up of a Doctor making a vaccination in the shoulder of patient.

The CMS Vaccine Mandate: The Nationwide Injunction and What It Means

By Kaitlynn Milvert

On November 30, 2021, a federal district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction to block the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) vaccine requirements for health care workers.

This ruling comes mere days before the December 6 deadline for employees of CMS-funded facilities to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and it casts uncertainty over upcoming deadlines for vaccination compliance.

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Empty classroom.

Can Schools Require the COVID-19 Vaccine? Education, Equity, and the Courts

By Emily Caputo and Blake N. Shultz

As school systems consider policy options for the spring semester, both vaccination requirements and proposals to address inequities in access to education may be top of mind. However, policymakers should be aware of the possible legal challenges they may face.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an educational crisis in the United States by disrupting the learning of millions of students across the country. School closures, remote learning, and generalized societal stress have all raised serious concerns about persistent harm to adolescent learning and development — particularly among low-income and minority students.

While the pandemic has exposed widespread inequities in educational opportunity, it has also revealed the relative inability of the courts to promote access to education. A recent California lawsuit illustrates the manner in which students must rely on state-level, rather than federal, protections to ensure equal access to education. And COVID-19 vaccination requirements, which could facilitate a return to in-person education, are likely to result in lawsuits, and may be struck down by a skeptical and conservative Supreme Court.

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