Thursday afternoon, the Supreme Court delivered rulings in the vaccine mandate cases it rushed to hear on January 7. They ruled 6-3 that the Labor Department (OSHA) mandate applicable to all companies with 100 or more employees could not be enforced for now. President Biden’s other vaccine mandate, however, is allowed to stand, for now, by a vote of 5-4, concerning healthcare workers at facilities that receive federal funding.
Both cases do not involve rulings on the ultimate constitutionality of the challenged mandates. Those challenges will still proceed in the lower courts and may reach a different outcome once they are fully briefed, tried, and ultimately appealed. These rulings concern requests to stay or forbid the enforcement of the mandates while they are fought over. The reason for the different outcomes rests on the opinions of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. They joined with the conservative bloc in the OSHA decision and the left bloc on the healthcare facilities mandate.
The stay in the OSHA case was a “per curiam” opinion, with authorship not attributed to any one justice. We know that Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonya Sotomayor dissented, however, because they all joined in a group dissent, a rarity at the High Court. They said:
“Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies. We respectfully dissent.”
For the medical facilities case, that was another per curiam ruling. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito wrote separately in dissent and were joined by each other, and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. Thomas wrote:
“These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID–19 vaccines. They are only about whether CMS has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo. Because the Government has not made a strong showing that Congress gave CMS that broad authority, I would deny the stays pending appeal. I respectfully dissent.”