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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