Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

The Supreme Court Threatens to Undermine Vaccination Decisions Entrusted to the States

By Donna Gitter

In 2021, the Supreme Court articulated in Tandon v. Newsom a legal principle that threatens to upend over a century of legal precedent recognizing the authority of state governments to ensure public health by mandating vaccines.

The ruling lays the groundwork for courts to force states to include religious exemptions to mandatory vaccines whenever they include secular exemptions, such as medical ones.

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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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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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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

5 Questions About COVID-19 and Religious Exemptions

By Chloe Reichel

On February 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a shadow docket decision that could foretell sweeping limitations for public health measures, both within and outside the COVID-19 pandemic context.

The Court’s ruling in the case, Gateway City Church v. Newsom, blocked a county-level ban on church services, despite the fact that the ban applied across the board to all indoor gatherings. This religious exceptionalism is emerging as a key trend in recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those related to COVID-19 restrictions.

To better understand what these rulings might mean for public health, free exercise of religion, the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential vaccine mandates, I spoke with Professor Elizabeth Sepper, an expert in religious liberty, health law, and equality at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

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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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