Law & Principles
Court rules against Biden vaccine mandate
January 14, 2022
The Biden administration’s effort to make COVID-19 vaccines a condition of employment throughout the private sector has been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, although the court separately ruled that the Biden administration does have the authority to impose a vaccine mandate on health-care workers at facilities receiving Medicaid or Medicare funding.
The Biden administration’s private-sector vaccine mandate, issued through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), would have required all employees of businesses with 100 or more staff members—an estimated 80 million private-sector workers—to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or tested weekly and wear a mask. Businesses that failed to comply faced fines up to $136,532.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion, issued in a 6-3 split with all Republican appointees on the court in the majority, declared the mandate was “a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees” that is not allowed under existing federal law.
“Although COVID-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” the opinion stated. “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. 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.”
However, two Republican court appointees—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh—joined with the court’s three Democratic appointees in upholding the legality of the Biden administration’s mandate for all health-care employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
The majority concluded that the mandate is based in existing legal authority, writing that “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.”
Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissent in that case, and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett.
“We presume that Congress does not hide ‘fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague or ancillary provisions,’” Thomas wrote. “… Yet here, the Government proposes to find virtually unlimited vaccination power, over millions of healthcare workers, in definitional provisions, a saving clause, and a provision regarding long-term care facilities’ sanitation procedures. The Government has not explained why Congress would have used these ancillary provisions to house what can only be characterized as a ‘fundamental detail’ of the statutory scheme. Had Congress wanted to grant CMS power to impose a vaccine mandate across all facility types, it would have done what it has done elsewhere—specifically authorize one.”
Oklahoma Leaders React
News of the court’s ruling on the private-sector mandate drew praise from Oklahoma leaders, who were among those who challenged the law, but many expressed concern that the court’s decision on health-care workers would lead to an exodus of workers and reduce access to care in Oklahoma.
“While I am pleased with the Court’s decision regarding businesses, I am disappointed in its decision to even temporarily uphold the CMS vaccine mandate,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt. “No American should lose their job over a vaccine, especially our brave health care workers who have been on the front lines of this pandemic. Today’s ruling will not only affect them, but it will also hurt our hospitals’ ability to care for patients during a nationwide staffing shortage.”
“The State of Oklahoma is pleased the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the states challenging the OSHA vaccine mandate on private businesses. Now, individuals who work in the private sector can make healthcare decisions for themselves and their families—as it should be. This is a major win for job creators and their employees,” said Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor. “However, we are disappointed with the Court’s decision to allow the enforcement of the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The State of Oklahoma is already suffering from healthcare staffing shortages and the CMS vaccine mandate will only make matters worse, especially in rural Oklahoma.”
“Although vaccines are safe and effective, the decision to get a vaccine should remain up to individuals to decide,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “The Supreme Court was right to reject the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandate for large businesses. It clearly was a case of federal overreach. After this court win, I am more confident that the decision the state Senate made to put $10 million in funding toward the Attorney General’s Office was the right move to fight federal overreach. We remain committed to resourcing the Attorney General’s Office to defend the rights of Oklahomans.”
“This is a big day for every Oklahoman and American who has lived in fear of having to choose between their health decisions or keeping their job,” said U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. “Today’s ruling states what every Oklahoman has known for months—President Biden does not have the authority to reach into every private business to say who should be hired and who should be fired.”