Supreme Court Prioritizes Conservative Ideology Over Public Health and the Rule of Law

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Carolyn Bobb

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 13, 2022 – Today, the Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions on President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, one of which blocked OSHA guidance designed to protect tens of millions of workers from a deadly pandemic. While the Supreme Court did allow requirements that health care workers be vaccinated to remain in force, OSHA’s mandate that all workplaces with more than 100 employees must require employees to either be vaccinated or frequently tested for COVID was stayed.

In a 6–3 decision, the Court’s conservatives concluded that OSHA, the very agency Congress designed to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for all Americans, had only limited authority to protect only certain segments of workers from COVID transmission in the workplace. With hospitals increasingly overrun and understaffed, the Court’s conservative majority ruled that COVID does not present an “emergency” sufficient to justify OSHA’s existing regulation just one day after the Omicron variant resulted in a record-high 860,000 new cases across the United States.  

In a blistering dissent, Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor noted that OSHA was performing the precise task Congress charged it to do: “It took action to address COVID-19’s continuing threat” in confined indoor spaces, a feature of almost all workplace environments. The three justices accused the Court of “acting outside of its competence and without legal basis.” 

The liberal-leaning justices highlighted that in just the last week, COVID has caused more than 11,000 new deaths. “It is perverse,” they write, to conclude that OSHA is not empowered to address “one of the gravest workplace hazards in the agency’s history.”  

The dissent continued by noting that “[u]nderlying everything else in this dispute 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?” The Court’s members, they note, “are elected by, and accountable to, no one.” 

“When we are wise, we know enough to defer on matters like this one,” the dissent concluded.  

“Today, we are not wise.” 

Alliance for Justice Rakim H.D. Brooks issued the following statement: 

“It’s been said before and will surely need to be said again: People will die because of today’s ruling. The Court’s conservatives suggest that the American people should be able to place their trust in their elected representatives and not unelected bureaucrats, and yet in the same breath they — unelected bureaucrats — declare that Congress’s delegation to workplace safety experts at OSHA does not pass constitutional muster. This decision is as hypocritical as it is absurd. Sadly, this is what we have come to expect: a Supreme Court that feigns judicial modesty while declaring — indirectly, of course — they know what’s best for the American people over the health experts hired to protect us from a deadly pandemic.

“What is equally infuriating is that this case emerged, in part, from the Attorney General of Ohio’s office and a major business lobby. Note the irony: The Court claims that worker safety is properly the province of the states and employers, all while a state and employer lobby attacks common sense, easy to implement, low-cost worker safety regulations. Come on — who are they kidding? 

“It was Justice Robert H. Jackson who first said, ‘The Constitution is not a suicide pact.’ His point was that restricting the government’s power must be balanced against protecting the future of the nation and the welfare of its people. We, the American people, are now faced with the choice of whether we let this lawless Supreme Court majority take us down with them or we take a stand. It is time to expand the Court, and we must hold these businesses and the Attorney General of Ohio accountable for this national outrage.”