Supreme Court blocks Biden Covid vaccine mandate for businesses, allows health-care worker rule

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The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its sweeping vaccine-or-test requirements for large private companies, but allowed a vaccine mandate to stand for medical facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid payments.

The rulings came three days after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency measure started to take effect.

That mandate required that workers at businesses with 100 or more employees must get vaccinated or submit a negative Covid test weekly to enter the workplace. It also required unvaccinated workers to wear masks indoors at work.

“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion.

“Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category,” the court wrote.

A demonstrator holds a “Freedoms & Mandates Don’t Mix” sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments on two federal coronavirus vaccine mandate measures in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, writing that the majority has usurped the power of Congress, the president and OSHA without legal basis.

“In the face of a still-raging pandemic, this Court tells the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all the workplaces needed,” they said in their dissent.

“As disease and death continue to mount, this Court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible. Without legal basis, the Court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undercuts the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger,” they wrote.

In a separate, simultaneously released ruling on the administration’s vaccination rules for health-care workers, a 5-4 majority sided with the Biden administration.

“We agree with the Government that the [Health and Human Services] Secretary’s rule falls within the authorities that Congress has conferred upon him,” said the majority, writing that the rule “fits neatly within the language of the statute.”

“After all, ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: first, do no harm,” the majority opinion read.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett dissented from that ruling.

“I do not think that the Federal Government is likely to be able to show that Congress has authorized the unprecedented step of compelling over 10,000,000 healthcare workers to be vaccinated on pain of being fired,” Alito wrote in his dissent.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the rulings.

OSHA, which polices workplace safety for the Labor Department, issued the mandates under its emergency power established by Congress. OSHA can shortcut the normal rulemaking process, which can take years, if the Labor secretary determines a new workplace safety standard is necessary to protect workers from a grave danger. 

The Biden administration argued before the high court Friday that the rules were necessary to address the “grave danger” posed by the Covid pandemic.

Liberal justices, clearly sympathetic to the government’s position, highlighted the devastating death toll from the pandemic and the unprecedented wave of infection rolling across the nation due to the omicron variant.

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But the court’s 6-3 conservative majority expressed deep skepticism about the federal government’s move.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said during arguments that he thinks it’s hard to argue that the 1970 law governing OSHA “gives free reign to the agencies to enact such broad regulation.”

The vaccine-or-test rules faced a raft of lawsuits from 27 states with Republican attorneys general or governors, private businesses, religious groups and national industry groups such as the National Retail Federation, the American Trucking Associations and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The mandates were the most expansive use of power by the federal government to protect workers from Covid since the pandemic began.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.



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