The mandate “draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19,” the majority opinion said, adding that it was “a significant encroachment into the lives — and health — of a vast number of employees.” The unsigned majority opinion in the employer case said a statute on workplace hazards did not justify a mandate that would have required more than 80 million workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or to wear masks and be tested weekly. It also stressed the novelty and sweep of the mandate issued by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, saying Congress had not authorized the agency to act and describing its response as “a blunt instrument.” But the opinion said more tailored regulations may be lawful given that “most lifeguards and linemen face the same regulations as do medics and meatpackers.”
The president welcomed the ruling in his favor, saying in a statement that it would save the lives of health care workers and patients. But he said he was disappointed that the court had overturned the employer mandate, which he said was “grounded squarely in both science and the law.” The employer decision undercut one of President Biden’s most significant attempts to tame the virus and left the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, largely leaving companies and businesses on their own.
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In both the employer and health worker cases, the justices explored whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping actions to address the health care crisis. The vote in the employer mandate case was 6 to 3, with the liberal justices in dissent. The vote in the health care case was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joining the liberal justices to form a majority.
“Underlying everything else in this dispute,” they wrote, “is a single, simple question: Who decides how much protection, and of what kind, American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with expertise in workplace health and safety, acting as Congress and the president authorized? Or a court, lacking any knowledge of how to safeguard workplaces, and insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes?” Updated They agreed that the key issue in the case was that of institutional competence to address the health care crisis.
Regulating safety in the workplace, the three dissenting justices wrote, is precisely what OSHA is commanded to do. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan expressed incredulity at the court’s willingness to frustrate “the federal government’s ability to counter the unparalleled threat that Covid-19 poses to our nation’s workers.”
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