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Biden under fire

Vaccine rules to set off barrage of legal challenges

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s sweeping new vaccine requirements have Republican governors threatening lawsuits. His unapologetic response: “Have at it.”

The administration is gearing up for another major clash between federal and state rule. But while many details about the rules remain unknown, Biden appears to be on firm legal ground to issue the directive in the name of protecting employee safety, according to experts interviewed by The Associated Press.

“My bet is that with respect to that statutory authority, they’re on pretty strong footing given the evidence strongly suggesting … the degree of risk that (unvaccinated individuals) pose, not only to themselves but also onto others,” said University of Connecticut law professor Sachin Pandya.

Republicans swiftly denounced the mandate that could impact 100 million Americans as government overreach and vowed to sue. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called it an “assault on private businesses” while Gov. Henry McMaster promised to “fight them to the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian.” The Republican National Committee has also said it will sue the administration “to protect Americans and their liberties.”

If they follow through, it would become another test of state power versus federal power over rules not meant to be enforced daily, but rather to have its intended effect by threat. Biden’s Department of Justice is already suing Texas over its new state law that bans most abortions, arguing that it was enacted “in open defiance of the Constitution.”

The White House is gearing up for legal challenges and believes that even if some of the mandates are tossed out, millions of Americans will get a shot because of the new requirements — saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus.

Biden is putting enforcement in the hands of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is drafting a rule “over the coming weeks,” Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Friday. He warned that “if a workplace refuses to follow the standard, the OSHA fines could be quite significant.”

Courts have upheld vaccination requirements as a condition of employment, both before the pandemic — in challenges brought by health care workers — and since the coronavirus outbreak, said Lindsay Wiley, director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University Washington College of Law.

Where Biden’s vaccine requirements could be more open to attack is over questions of whether the administration followed the proper process to implement them, she said.

“The argument that mandatory vaccination impermissibly infringes on bodily autonomy or medical decision making, those arguments have not been successful and I don’t expect that to change,” Wiley said. “I think the challenges that are harder to predict the outcome of are going to be the ones that are really sort of the boring challenges about whether they followed the right process.”

Emergency temporary standards — under which the rules are being implemented on a fast track — have been particularly vulnerable to challenges, Wiley said. But the risks presented by the coronavirus and the existence of declared public health emergency could put this one “on stronger footing than any other ones past administrations have tried to impose that have been challenged in court,” she said.

Indeed, the question of whether the mandate is legally sound is separate from whether it will be upheld by judges, including by a conservative-majority Supreme Court which has trended toward generous interpretations of religious freedom and may be looking to ensure that any mandate sufficiently takes faith-based objections into account.

Vaccination “has become politicized and there are many Republican district judges who might be hostile to the regulation for political reasons,” said Michael Harper, a Boston University law professor.

“I could imagine an unfortunate opinion that attempted to justify this political stance by rejecting the use of OSHA against infectious disease rather than against hazards intrinsic to the workplace,” Harper said in an email.

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