Supreme Court justices

U.S. Supreme Court justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh attend President Joe Biden's inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)

'Tragically Wrong': Supreme Court Blocks Biden's Vaccine Mandate for Large Employers

"The direct result of this decision will be thousands of needless deaths and preventable illnesses," said Public Citizen.

Blocking an executive order from the White House that public health experts said would prevent hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, the right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test mandate for large private employers, claiming the Labor Department does not have the congressional authority to impose such a requirement.

The court ruled 6-3 against the mandate, which would have applied to employers with 100 or more workers. Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer dissented.

"After letting Texas's blatantly unconstitutional abortion ban remain in effect, the Republican justices have now swept into action to kneecap the Biden administration's common-sense public health measure."

Under the mandate, approximately 84 million workers would have had to prove they were vaccinated against Covid-19 or else wear face masks at work and submit to weekly testing. It included exceptions for people with religious objections to the vaccines or who don't come into close contact with others at work, such as employees who work remotely or outdoors.

In their dissent, the liberal justices denounced the court for telling the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which enforces rules to protect workers. that the agency does not have the authority to do so "in all the workplaces needed"--even in the face of a deadly pandemic.

"As disease and death continue to mount, this Court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible," wrote the justices. "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."

The ruling comes as the U.S. reports an average of more than 700,000 coronavirus cases per day, with hospitalizations increasing more than 80% in the past two weeks.

According to OSHA estimates, the mandate would have driven 22 million people to get vaccinated.

In a period of just six months, OSHA said, the mandate "would save over 6,500 worker lives and prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations."

Government watchdog Public Citizen said the court "got things tragically wrong in concluding that that OSHA's approach to regulating COVID-19 risk at work was not plainly within the scope of its statutory authority."

"OSHA's emergency authority is tailored exactly for circumstances like this. The direct result of this decision will be thousands of needless deaths and preventable illnesses," said Robert Weissman, the group's president.

Brian Fallon, executive director of court reform advocacy group Demand Justice, called the decision a "startling act of partisan overreach" and "an unwelcome reminder that as long as Republicans control the Supreme Court, no policy from a Democratic president is safe."

"After letting Texas's blatantly unconstitutional abortion ban remain in effect, the Republican justices have now swept into action to kneecap the Biden administration's common-sense public health measure," said Fallon. "No unelected body should be allowed to wield so much power in so partisan a manner."

On social media, Fallon said the ruling strengthens Demand Justice's case for expanding the court by passing the Judiciary Act.

The Supreme Court did allow another Biden administration mandate to stand, requiring workers to be vaccinated if they work in healthcare facilities that receive federal money for the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The rule is expected to affect 17 million workers.

The American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) applauded the 5-4 ruling affecting healthcare workers, but said it was "discouraged" by the vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers.

"As the world continues to confront the Covid-19 pandemic and surges from variants like Delta and Omicron, all workers should get vaccinated for their own health and to protect the health of their colleagues, families, and communities in which they live," said Dr. Sterling N. Ransone Jr., president of the AAFP.

"It is especially necessary," he continued, "to protect those who are vulnerable, including unvaccinated children and the immunocompromised. The need to protect vulnerable groups is why many industries, including healthcare, long-term care, and education, already require vaccinations for influenza, hepatitis B, and pertussis."

As Common Dreams reported last week, the Supreme Court heard some of the arguments against the Biden administration's mandate via phone, because two of the lawyers had tested positive for Covid-19 shortly before the court heard the case last Friday. The court has far more stringent rules than the Biden administration would have imposed for employers, requiring all attorneys who address the justices to be tested for Covid-19 at a court-approved facility and to wear an N95 or KN95 mask while in the building, even if they test negative.

While being well protected themselves from exposure, the right-wing justices denied workers "critical health and safety protections," said Democracy Forward.

"Our nation is fighting a battle against an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases, as well as rising death and record-breaking hospitalization rates--a battle that can be won only with widespread vaccination," said president and CEO Skye Perryman. "A large proportion of our nation's workforce is regularly exposed to Covid-19 at work. The Court's decision to halt the OSHA standard from taking effect in a timely manner denies workers critical health and safety protections."

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