On January 13, 2022, the US Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate for large businesses. The Court ruled the Biden Administration didn’t have the power to enforce a broad rule. However, the Supreme Court did say the administration could enforce a vaccine mandate for most healthcare workers.
If you need a quick refresher, this high-profile case centers around a rule the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued in November 2021. OSHA said businesses with 100 or more employees must require those employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination or submit to regular coronavirus tests by January 4, 2022. The mandate, had it been upheld, would have impacted more than 80 million Americans.
Shortly after OSHA announced this rule in November, several states, businesses, and a Network of state and local policy organizations—including The Buckeye Institute, Pelican Institute for Public Policy, Liberty Justice Center, Mississippi Justice Institute, and Texas Public Policy Foundation—challenged the rule in court.
These organizations, close and connected to the people in their communities, understood that the mandate would hurt many of the people in their state. Local businesses are struggling to find workers—requiring a vaccine would make that plight even harder. In their legal challenges against the mandate, these local organizations highlighted how OSHA’s rule would devastate businesses and communities in their states.
Because there were so many lawsuits that challenged the vaccine requirement for large businesses, the Supreme Court consolidated them under two court cases and issued the widely-anticipated ruling on January 13.
“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 noted. “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 Buckeye Institute, an organization that filed one of the lawsuits on behalf of a local business owner, reflected on the Supreme Court decision, noting: “In issuing an emergency stay, the US Supreme Court has protected not just our clients who filed suit in this case, but all of the businesses, workers, and communities across the country who would have suffered—and will suffer—significant economic harm if OSHA’s unlawful vaccine mandate were allowed to be enforced.”
The Liberty Justice Center (LJC), an organization that filed a lawsuit with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy on behalf of a Louisiana grocery store owner, observed: “Today’s ruling represents a historic victory against government overreach and intrusion into the lives of American citizens, and a tremendous triumph over egregious federal policies that have grossly violated Americans’ fundamental rights.”
Thanks to Buckeye, LJC, Pelican, and many more state organizations, businesses won’t have to comply with a one-size-fits all mandate from Washington, DC. Further, workers won’t be forced to comply with a personal health decision in order to keep their jobs and provide for their families. This case is a good example of the power of Network litigation—and how it can be used to combat federal government overreach. Diana Rickert, vice president of LJC, added: “The SPN movement led with the personal story, and we helped lead the narrative of how this affects regular people. This wasn’t just a blue/red fight in DC.”
The case also serves as a reminder that power in the United States is shared between the federal and state governments. As the Supreme Court affirmed on Thursday, the federal government does not have the authority to sidestep Congress and issue a broad mandate on the American people.
But beyond just a reminder of constitutional limits, this case also raises an important question regarding America’s response to the coronavirus: When it comes to protecting our families and communities from COVID-19, how has the federal government done?
From the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fumbling the roll-out of COVID tests early in the pandemic to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) failing to offer clear pandemic guidance to the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s mixed messages, it seems the federal government hasn’t performed well. And these failings have contributed to a steep and significant decline in public trust in the last 20 months.
Perhaps a better approach would allow state and local governments to make decisions about public health. Tony Woodlief, executive vice president of State Policy Network and author of I, Citizen, added:
“As with so many other policy areas, when it comes to COVID, Americans don’t have a great deal of faith in federal bureaucracy, and with good reason. Rather than use a sketchy bureaucratic edict to force vaccine compliance, a more democratic approach would be to allow state and local governments to make decisions about public health. Unlike the political class inhabiting DC, these officials have to live in the communities they oversee.”
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