In an opinion piece appearing in the Wall Street Journal today, the editorial board described the Supreme Court’s ruling this week as a rebuke to the Biden administration’s unlawful vaccine mandates one “one hand,” but a “pass on the other.” In the Supreme Court’s ruling, 6 of the 9 justices voted to strike down the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s mandate that covered roughly 84 million American employees, proving a win for all those who challenged the constitutionality of the directive. However, 2 of the Court’s conservative justices joined the 3 liberals to concur on the legality of the mandate covering health care workers.
On the matter of OSHA’s mandate, the court’s opinion states that OSHA’s mandate “exceeds its statutory authority and is otherwise unlawful.” The mandate enacted by OSHA was the first of its kind, unprecedented in its breadth, and is described in the ruling as a “blunt instrument,” with few to no exceptions allowed even for employees whose primary workplace is outdoors (e.g., landscapers, lifeguards, linemen, etc.). All in all, the reasoning included in the court’s ruling, is that the Secretary of OSHA simply lacked the authority to enact such a mandate and that the required “power rests with the States and Congress, not OSHA.”
In his concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch, along with Justices Thomas and Alito maintain that the primary question of authority in the ruling involves a power struggle between states and local authorities versus the federal government. Gorsuch notes the need of the federal government to “act consistently with the Constitution’s separation of powers” and names Congress as the means through which states’ rights are upheld. “If administrative agencies seek to regulate the daily lives and liberties of millions of Americans… they must at least be able to trace that power to a clear grant of authority from Congress.” In this respect, the OSHA mandate failed to do so and served only to weaken the position and power of states in American governance.
The dissenting opinion, unsurprisingly, sought to use the “grave danger” posed by COVID as sufficient reason to justify the unconstitutional overreach of federal power at the expense of states and individual freedoms.
While the Court’s decision to block Biden’s OSHA mandate proves a victory for states’ rights, its decision to uphold the administration’s mandate for health care workers is not. Disappointingly, healthcare facilities that receive federal funding (by way of Medicare and Medicaid patients) must ensure their workers are vaccinated, except in cases of religious or medical exemptions. Where OSHA does not retain authority to impose a vaccine mandate, the Department of Health and Human Services does, according to the Court. The opinion cites the authority of the Secretary to enact rules regarding “infection control,” suggesting that a vaccine mandate most certainly falls within the Secretary’s authority to implement infection control.
Those Justices in dissent (Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Barrett), for their part, suggest an excess of federal power and maintain that the “Executive Branch already touches nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives.” The precedent set by this week’s ruling is significant and marks a victory for States’ rights.