In a “per curiam” opinion, meaning a decision authored by the entire Court, instead of a single justice, the United States Supreme Court granted a stay of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vaccine mandate for employers with 100 or more workers. The rule, therefore, will not go into effect until the case goes through the entire appellate process.
But the Court’s division can be further assessed by the fact that the three more liberal justices—Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan— dissented from the opinion, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined a very strong concurring opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The Court’s sensible approach to the issue simply noted that OSHA’s “emergency standard,” which it used here and which circumvents the usual public notice and comment accountability processes, should be used with precision and caution. Instead, the Court notes that the OSHA rule which applies to 84 million workers “requires workers receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and it pre-empts contrary state laws,” works as “a blunt instrument.” It found the exemptions presented (for employees who work outside 100 percent of the time or who work exclusively outdoors, for example) were “largely illusory.” The rule “draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
The Court found those objecting to the rule were “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that [OSHA] lack[s] authority to impose the mandate.”
In doing so, the Supreme Court returns power to the states and the people, where it belongs, because the vaccine mandate goes way beyond establishing a simple workplace standard, as the agency is charged to enact, and into establishing nationwide public health policy. Remember, OSHA has never in its history done anything like this.
And here is where Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence is extremely helpful because it acknowledges what most Americans understand. This administrative mandate is trying to accomplish what President Joe Biden could not get done through the people’s representatives. He is trying to enact something Congress up until now has rejected.
If the people want a vaccine mandate, they could easily demand it from Congress. The reality is most people do not. In fact, the President’s approval numbers have been steadily declining. The latest numbers show him at an all-time low of 33 percent. Fifty-five percent disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.
That is why President Biden had to work through OSHA to establish this national vaccine mandate. He lacks the necessary support to do it otherwise.
Justice Gorsuch wrote:
The central question we face today is: Who decides? No one doubts that the COVID–19 pandemic has posed challenges for every American. Or that our state, local, and national governments all have roles to play in combating the disease. The only question is whether an administrative agency in Washington, one charged with overseeing workplace safety, may mandate the vaccination or regular testing of 84 million people. Or whether, as 27 States before us submit, that work belongs to state and local governments across the country and the people’s elected representatives in Congress.
That power belongs to the people, said the Supreme Court today—to those most immediately accountable to them. The concurrence noticed that “a majority of the Senate even voted to disapprove OSHA’s regulation.” Therefore, it seemed reasonable to conclude “the agency pursued its regulatory initiative only as a legislative ‘work-around.’”
With this decision, the Court re-affirms what it has said in the past, that major questions of doctrine with broad effects on the public are left to the people’s elected representatives, and that they must make it very clear when they are giving such broad power to an agency. The concurrence said this rule, known as the “major questions doctrine”:
[E]nsures that the national government’s power to make the laws that govern us remains where Article I of the Constitution says it belongs—with the people’s elected representatives. 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.
And even then, the concurrence suspects that such an intrusive mandate brought through the backdoor of an administrative agency might run afoul of the “nondelegation doctrine,” which “ensures democratic accountability by preventing Congress from intentionally delegating its legislative powers to unelected officials.”
Justice Gorsuch concludes:
On the one hand, OSHA claims the power to issue a nationwide mandate on a major question but cannot trace its authority to do so to any clear congressional mandate. On the other hand, if the statutory subsection the agency cites really did endow OSHA with the power it asserts, that law would likely constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority.
Whatever your view of the COVID vaccine in general, it should be encouraging to all to see the Court protecting the Constitutional structures that guard our liberties in this way. As Justice Gorsuch put it, “The question before us is not how to respond to the pandemic, but who holds the power to do so.”
The rule will be halted for now, but the case will continue. As we await further proceedings let us pray for a wiser, more honest, and unifying approach to fighting the pandemic going forward.