Tuesday, November 14, 2023

US Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

US Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate


The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 13 declined to take up a lawsuit filed by four New Jersey nurses to challenge a now-scrapped state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The justices will not examine a U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision that dismissed the nurses' challenge as moot. In the Supreme Court's list of orders released on Nov. 13, the court rejected an appeal in the case, Katie Sczesny, et al. v. Murphy, Gov. of New Jersey, et al. No comment from the justices was provided.

In early 2022, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order that "unvaccinated covered workers must obtain their first dose of the primary series of a COVID-19 vaccination by January 27, 2022,” adding that those workers have to give "adequate proof" they've received all their shots by Feb. 28 of that year. Those who do not provide sufficient proof "must be considered noncompliant."

In an appeal to the high court, the nurses argued that the vaccine mandate violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which they argued encompasses their right to refuse to get a medical procedure and their right to privacy. They also said the rule violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

The nurses—Debra Hagen, Jamie Rumfield, Katie Sczesny, and Mariette Vitti—filed a lawsuit against the governor's office and said that although the order allowed for religious or medical exemptions, the state "mass-denied religious exemptions in state institutions, stating that accommodating people with religious exemptions would constitute an ‘undue burden’ on the state because the employees with religious objections to the COVID-19 injections are a ‘threat’ to the safety of others.”
The booster mandate, they also argued, “violates the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions, which prohibits the government from conditioning a privilege on the surrender of a constitutional right.”

Last year, a U.S. district judge ruled against the nurses, saying they "[failed] to demonstrate likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the Executive Orders violate their liberty rights under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment" and also failed "to demonstrate immediate and irreparable injury."

Months later, a U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order that declared their lawsuit moot after the New Jersey mandate was rescinded. But the nurses appealed their case to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, signed an order in April of this year to lift the vaccine mandate for health care workers because, according to the governor, it aligns the state "with recent updates to federal requirements and reflects our different circumstances now, as compared to the past few years."
 A nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine in Southfield, Mich., on Sept. 29, 2021. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)
A nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine in Southfield, Mich., on Sept. 29, 2021. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

Other Cases

It's not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has turned away a challenge to vaccine mandates. In 2022, the court declined to hear a challenge by Missouri and nine other states to President Joe Biden's COVID-19 mandate that had been issued for health care facilities that get federal funds; that mandate was later rescinded as the public health emergency ended earlier this year.

The Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in January 2022 to let the Biden administration enforce the health care worker mandate while litigation on its legal merits continued in lower courts. At the same time, the justices decided 6–3 to halt the administration's rule requiring vaccines or weekly COVID-19 tests for employees at businesses with at least 100 employees.

In New York City, in a separate case, a judge ruled in September that 10 employees fired by the New York City Department of Education for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine must be reinstated with pay. At the time, New York State Supreme Court Judge Ralph J. Porzio ruled that the city's denials of religious accommodation to employees were capricious, arbitrary, and illegal.

"This Court sees no rational basis for not allowing unvaccinated classroom teachers in amongst an admitted population of primarily unvaccinated students," Judge Porzio wrote in the ruling. "As such, the decision to summarily deny the classroom teachers amongst the Panel Petitioners based on an undue hardship, without any further evidence of individualized analysis, is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. As such, each classroom teacher amongst the Panel Petitioners is entitled to a religious exemption from the Vaccine Mandate."

Last month, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division dismissed an appeal by New York state health officials of a ruling issued in January by a state Supreme Court judge that overturned the state's COVID-19 mandate for health care workers in the state.
A court in August 2022, meanwhile, ruled that Illinois health care workers who were fired or otherwise affected by vaccine mandates would receive a $10 million settlement. A group of about 500 health care workers in the state had filed a suit against NorthShore University HealthSystem, alleging the system wouldn't grant them religious exemptions.
Reuters contributed to this report.

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