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Supreme Court reins in OSHA in vaccine case

Justices strike down COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses, but not for healthcare workers

The Supreme Court in Washington last week Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Supreme Court reins in OSHA in vaccine case

A conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a blow to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine push. The justices blocked an Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccine mandate that would have applied to roughly 84 million workers at American companies. But the justices allowed the administration to proceed with enforcing a separate mandate impacting nearly 10 million healthcare workers.

In the unsigned majority opinion, the six conservative judges cast the mandate as a novel and far-reaching assertion of federal power exceeding OSHA’s limited authority to regulate the workplace. “Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization,” the court wrote.

Ryan Clontz, who manages a chain of 21 North Carolina convenience stores, expressed relief over Thursday’s ruling. “We were rejoicing yesterday,” he said, noting that compliance with the mandate would have cost his 150-employee operation at least $150,000. Clontz, president of Breeze Thru Markets, said much of the cost would have gone toward paid time off for employees who opted for weekly testing. But he said he was also concerned some employees would leave, exacerbating an already critical staffing situation: “It was a disaster and a gross overstep on the administration’s part.”

The court’s 6-3 split was unsurprising given last week’s oral arguments, where conservatives emphasized the limited nature of agency authority while liberals cited a need for regulatory power given the emergency posed by the pandemic. The court’s three liberals released a dissenting opinion on Thursday: “As disease and death continue to mount, this court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible.”

The court’s majority addressed concerns that administrative agencies have started to function as a fourth branch of government—one prone to stretch its limited powers. “Administrative agencies are creatures of statute,” the court wrote. “They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided.”

The justices declined to address businesses’ claims that the OSHA rule would have saddled them with billions of dollars in compliance costs and caused hundreds of thousands of employees to leave. They also didn’t address the Biden administration’s claims that it would save more than 6,500 lives and prevent many more hospitalizations.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, wrote separately about the importance of separation of powers—or, as Gorsuch put it, “Who decides?” Gorsuch drew on the “major questions” doctrine, a constitutionally derived rule that aims to limit lawmaking to Congress.

“If administrative agencies seek to regulate the daily lives and liberties of millions of Americans, the doctrine says, they must at least be able to trace that power to a clear grant of authority from Congress,” Gorsuch wrote. If governmental agencies respected their limited authority “only in more tranquil conditions, declarations of emergencies would never end and the liberties our Constitution’s separation of powers seeks to preserve would amount to little.”

Though they voted to nix the workplace vaccine mandate, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s liberal wing to lift a lower court hold on a mandate affecting healthcare workers in medical facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds. In the unsigned opinion, a narrow majority agreed the Department of Health and Human Services rule fit squarely within the agency’s authority to protect the health of patients.

“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 concluded.

The dissenting justices argued the “hodgepodge of scattered provisions” cited by the government to justify the intrusive mandate was inadequate.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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