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 As We Know It Here on Earth One and Earth 616?

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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Vial and syringe.

The OSHA Vaccine Mandate: A Roundup of State Responses

By Kaitlynn Milvert

When the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) published its “vaccine-or-test” requirements for large employers on November 5, 2021, it immediately faced backlash from many states.

In the weeks that have followed, states not only have filed numerous lawsuits challenging the OSHA requirements, but also have actively pushed through legislation that seeks to limit the scope or use of vaccine requirements in the workplace.

This new wave of state legislation contributes to a landscape of uncertainty surrounding the legal status of workplace vaccine requirements and available exemptions.

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Gavel and stethoscope.

Symposium Conclusion: Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law & Policy

By Lindsay F. Wiley and Ruqaiijah Yearby

As our digital symposium on health justice comes to a close, we have much to be thankful for and inspired by. We are honored to provide a platform for contributions from scholars spanning multiple disciplines, perspectives, and aspects of health law and policy. Collectively with these contributors, we aim to define the contours of the health justice movement and debates within it, and to explore how scholars, activists, communities, and public health officials can work together to engage critical perspectives in health law and policy.

As we described in our symposium introduction, the questions we posed to contributors focused their work on four main themes: (1) subordination (including discrimination and poverty) is the root cause of health injustice, (2) subordination shapes health through multiple pathways, (3) health justice engages multiple kinds of experiences and expertise, and (4) health justice requires empowering communities, redressing harm, and reconstructing systems. Most of the contributions to this symposium cut across more than one of these themes, but we present them here in four broad categories.

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Washington, DC, USA - July 6, 2020: Protesters rally for housing as a human right at Black Homes Matter rally at Freedom Plaza, organized by Empower DC.

Building Power Across Movements for Health Justice 

By Solange Gould

At its core, public health is the radical concept that everyone has a fundamental right to the conditions required for health and well-being. To realize this vision of health justice, we must forge a strategy that moves beyond the pre-pandemic status quo and the broken systems that got us there.  

It’s time to re-envision and invest in a new public health infrastructure, one that is equipped and authorized to respond to the concurrent global crises we are facing: COVID-19; structural racism; White supremacy; climate change; and the failures of capitalism to provide for the basic human needs that are required for health. This infrastructure must center and build the power of those most impacted by structural inequity in order to truly advance justice. 

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Group of Diverse Kids Playing in a Field Together.

Health Justice is Within Our Reach

By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Health justice is the outcome when law protects against the unequal distribution of the basic needs that all humanity requires to be healthy. Angela Harris and Aysha Pamukcu define health justice in terms of ending the subordination and discrimination that produce health disparities.

I first saw and experienced the need for the work to achieve health justice as a child. I grew up in the South Bronx, insulated from the absence of health justice until the fourth grade, when I began attending private school. Before then, I had no idea that the racially, ethnically, and economically segregated society in which I lived, played, and attended school and church was any different than the society that existed unbeknownst to me outside of my zip code.

I crossed interstate highway exchanges daily as I walked to P.S. 93, oblivious to the fact that other kids did not breathe the exhaust fumes and toxins from nearby waste transfer stations that tainted the air where my mostly Black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican neighbors lived. I had no idea that clean, breathable air was inequitably distributed in this country by race.

It was not until I left the South Bronx to attend school in Riverdale that I realized other families had an array of housing options to choose from that were different than mine. In fourth grade, when my family began voluntarily bussing me to private school, I learned that the housing available to families extended beyond the racially segregated shotgun row house I lived in, the stinky, dimly lit apartment buildings on my corner or “the projects” where my grandparents lived in Harlem. Who knew there were sprawling homes atop manicured lawns and opulent apartments overlooking Central Park available throughout other parts of the city? Who knew that even modestly priced apartments could be located near green spaces, well-stocked grocery markets, and schools that prepared kids well for college? Not me. I had no idea until I began to see that decent, clean, affordable housing, and resource-rich neighborhoods are inequitably distributed by race and ethnicity in America.

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Scales of justice and gavel on table.

Symposium Introduction: Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law and Policy

By Ruqaiijah Yearby and Lindsay F. Wiley

Public health scholars, advocates, and officials have long recognized that factors outside an individual’s control act as barriers to individual and community health.

To strive for health equity, in which everyone “has the opportunity to attain . . . full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or any other socially defined circumstance,” many have adopted the social determinants of health (SDOH) model, which identifies social and economic factors that shape health. Yet, health equity has remained elusive in the United States, in part because the frameworks that most prominently guide health reform do not adequately address subordination as the root cause of health inequity, focus too much on individuals, and fail to center community voices and perspectives.

The health justice movement seeks to fill these gaps. Based in part on principles from the reproductive justice, environmental justice, food justice, and civil rights movements, the health justice movement rejects the notion that health inequity is an individual phenomenon best explained and addressed by focusing on health-related behaviors and access to health care. Instead it focuses on health inequity as a social phenomenon demanding wide-ranging structural interventions.

This digital symposium, part of the Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law & Policy Initiative launched in 2020, seeks to further define the contours of and debates within the health justice movement and explore how scholars, activists, communities, and public health officials can use health justice frameworks to achieve health equity.

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Close-up of a stethoscope on an American flag

Why Justice is Good for America’s Health

By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Justice is good for health [and] . . . health is the byproduct of justice.

— Norman Daniels, Bruce Kennedy & Ichiro Kawachi (Boston Review, 2000)

Among the most salient lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic are that unjust laws produce unjust health outcomes, and that justice is just plain good for America’s health.

Health justice is the moral mandate to protect and advance an equal opportunity for all to enjoy greatest health and well-being possible. Health justice means that no one person or group of people are granted or excluded from the means of pursuing health on an inequitable basis. To achieve health justice, societal institutions such as governments and health care providers must act to advance equality, by increasing fairness and decreasing unfairness of their current and historic impacts on populations.

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