WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (Reuters) – Conservative justices on Friday questioned the legality of President Joe Biden’s vaccine or testing mandate for big business as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a request from officials Republican states and business groups to block politics at a time of rising COVID-19 cases across the country.
The nine justices were hearing extended arguments in two cases that present proof of the presidential powers to fight a public health crisis that has left more than 830,000 Americans dead. The judges listened to more than two hours of arguments on the administration’s requirement for businesses before moving on to a second argument on whether to block the administration’s requirement for vaccines for healthcare facilities.
The court’s 6-3 conservative majority in the past has been skeptical of radical actions by federal agencies.
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The White House has said the two temporary terms will save lives and strengthen the United States economy by increasing the number of Americans vaccinated by the millions.
The challengers have argued that the federal government exceeded its authority by imposing requirements not specifically authorized by Congress and did not follow the proper administrative processes to issue emergency regulations.
Friday’s first argument centered on a requirement by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that workers in companies with 100 or more employees be vaccinated or tested weekly, a mandate that applies to more than 80 million workers nationwide. The administration is scheduled to begin enforcing the policy on Monday.
Chief Justice John Roberts wondered if Congress or the states should have a voice. When questioning the United States Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar, who was defending the administration, Roberts seemed skeptical that the 1970 law that OSHA established would give that agency the power it needs.
“That was 50 years ago that you say Congress acted. I don’t think you had COVID in mind. That was almost closer to the Spanish flu than to the problem today,” Roberts said, referring to the pandemic that occurred. A century ago.
Some judges raised the possibility of the court issuing a temporary stay blocking the rule while the court decides how to proceed. Some also wondered why the policy would be inadmissible in the face of a historic pandemic.
“This is a pandemic in which almost a million people have died,” said liberal judge Elena Kagan. “It is by far the greatest danger to public health that this country has faced in the last century. Every day more people die. Every day more people get sick … And this is the policy that is most aimed at stopping all this “.
“It would seem incredible to me to be in the public interest to stop these vaccines,” said liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.
The state of Ohio and the National Federation of Independent Business took the initiative to try to block that mandate.
Roberts appeared skeptical as to whether OSHA’s mandate was specific to the workplace, noting that the administration has sought to enact several mandates. As such, Roberts wondered if it is an issue the court should address as a broad exercise of executive power.
“Why does Congress have no say in this … and why is this not the primary responsibility of the states?” Roberts asked.
Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh wondered if OSHA’s rule could be considered invalid under legal doctrine that says Congress must provide a clear statement on a specific issue before a federal agency can issue comprehensive regulations on it.
“It’s not that judges are supposed to decide any public health issue, it’s about regulating the rules of a system to ensure that the appropriate party does it … Is this (a question) that has been given to the agencies to decide or a Has Congress made a decision as an important issue in our federal system? “Gorsuch asked.
Conservative Judge Samuel Alito, while saying he is not against vaccines, raised the question of the potential risks to some people from receiving the vaccines and asked if OSHA has ever imposed a safety measure that poses a “risk.”
Under the second policy being reviewed by the Supreme Court, the vaccination of approximately 10.3 million workers is required in approximately 76,000 health care facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, that participate in the government’s Medicare health insurance programs. and Medicaid for the elderly, disabled, and low-income people. income Americans.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency responsible for administering the two programs, issued the rule. The states of Missouri and Louisiana are leading the arguments before judges seeking an order blocking it.
The administration has argued that Congress gave federal agencies wide leeway to require employers to protect Medicare and Medicaid workers and patients from health and safety hazards.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor participated in her firm’s arguments, and two trial attorneys, the Ohio and Louisiana attorneys general, participated remotely by phone, a court spokeswoman said. Ohio Attorney General Benjamin Flowers tested positive for COVID-19, his office said, and Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill argued remotely “in accordance with COVID protocols,” her office said.
The judges spent most of the pandemic working remotely, but they argued again in person in October. All nine are fully vaccinated, the court said. The court remains closed to the public.
The Supreme Court has already handled several cases related to the pandemic and rejected religious challenges to state vaccine requirements.
As in many countries, vaccination has become a divisive issue in the United States, with some staunch opponents and many Republicans critical of government and corporate mandates. The United States and countries around the world are facing a spike in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Biden administration is asking justices to lift the orders of judges in Missouri and Louisiana blocking the mandate of healthcare workers in half of the 50 states while litigation continues over the policy’s legal merits.
On December 17, the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit lifted an injunction issued by another court that had blocked OSHA’s rule regarding large companies, leading the challengers to request the intervention of the Supreme Court.
Decisions in both cases are expected quickly.
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Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Tom Hals; Edited by Will Dunham
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