Checks and Balances: Courts weigh in on vaccine mandates

The Checks and Balances Letter delivers news and information from Ballotpedia’s Administrative State Project, including pivotal actions at the federal and state levels related to the separation of powers, due process and the rule of law.

This edition: 

In this month’s edition of Checks and Balances, we review the latest judicial actions on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates; a circuit split on the constitutionality of removal protections for certain administrative law judges that could prompt the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to weigh in; new federal legislation seeking to codify Chevron deference; and the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) proposed rescission of Trump-era policies regarding poor-performing federal employees. 

At the state level, we take a look at opposition from state attorneys general to the Biden administration’s vaccine and mask requirements for federal Head Start programs.

We also highlight the release of the Biden administration’s Fall 2021 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. As always, we wrap up with our Regulatory Tally, which features information about the 2,094 proposed rules and 3,257 final rules added to the Federal Register in 2021 and OIRA’s regulatory review activity.

In Washington

SCOTUS, courts of appeal issue rulings on vaccine mandates

What’s the story? 

The U.S. Supreme Court on January 13, 2022, blocked the Biden administration’s coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination requirements for certain private businesses while upholding the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The vaccine requirements for federal contractors remained blocked nationwide as of January 14, 2022.

Private businesses: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to block enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) regulation implementing a vaccine requirement for workers at businesses with 100 or more employees. In the per curiam opinion, the majority justices argued that the OSHA secretary lacked the authority to issue the requirement, describing the rule as “a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees.” 

In his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch argued in part that the rule failed the test of the major questions doctrine, which requires Congress to speak clearly when it grants an agency authority to regulate on economic or politically significant matters. “The agency claims the power to force 84 million Americans to receive a vaccine or undergo regular testing,” wrote Gorsuch. “By any measure, that is a claim of power to resolve a question of vast national significance. Yet Congress has nowhere clearly assigned so much power to OSHA.”

Healthcare workers: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s (CMS) vaccine requirement for healthcare workers at facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funds. In the per curiam opinion, the majority justices argued that “Congress has authorized the Secretary to impose conditions on the receipt of Medicaid and Medicare funds that ‘the Secretary finds necessary in the interest of the health and safety of individuals who are furnished services.’” 

Federal contractors: The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on December 17, 2021, upheld a nationwide injunction blocking enforcement of the Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for federal contractors. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on January 7, 2022, ruled 2-1 to uphold a similar injunction blocking the requirement for federal contractors in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. “If the president can order medical interventions in the name of reducing absenteeism,” questioned the majority, “what is the logical stopping point of that power?”

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Circuit split could prompt SCOTUS to hear challenge to ALJ removal protections

What’s the story? 

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on December 13, 2021, issued an en banc opinion in Cochran v. U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) et al., holding 9-7 that federal law does not prohibit federal district courts from concurrently hearing constitutional challenges to the SEC’s administrative law judges (ALJs) in cases where the agency has yet to issue a final adjudicative order. The court’s decision creates a circuit split with six other courts of appeal that have already considered such challenges, which could prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

Cochran has argued that the removal protections of the SEC ALJ assigned to her case unconstitutionally insulate the ALJ from removal by the president. The district court ruled that, according to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Cochran must first raise her constitutional challenge during agency proceedings before appealing the final agency order to the federal courts. A panel of the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court. The full Fifth Circuit heard the case and disagreed, finding in part that Cochran’s constitutional concern “has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a final order, and therefore her claim falls outside of” the statutory limit on the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

“In Free Enterprise Fund, the Supreme Court rejected the precise argument the SEC makes here—that the Exchange Act divests district courts of jurisdiction over removal power challenges,” wrote Judge Catharina Haynes in the opinion.

Judge Gregg Costa argued in the dissent, “Before today, every court of appeals to consider the question has answered that a person facing an SEC enforcement action may not mount a collateral attack against the agency proceeding in federal district court.” The majority, he further argued, “turns constitutional avoidance on its head by making separation-of-powers claims a first rather than last resort in resolving cases.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled in a constitutional challenge to the appointment of the SEC’s ALJs. The court found in Lucia v. SEC that the SEC’s ALJs are Officers of the United States subject to the Appointments Clause.

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Legislation seeks to codify Chevron deference

What’s the story?

U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) on December 1, 2021, introduced the Stop Corporate Capture Act, which aims to enact broad changes to the regulatory process, including codification of the Chevron deference doctrine.

Chevron deference compels judges to defer to reasonable agency interpretations of statutes they are tasked with administering. The proposed legislation would codify Chevron deference, despite continued uncertainty among U.S. Supreme Court justices regarding the doctrine’s scope. “[A]ll nine justices have at least once signed an opinion explicitly holding that Chevron should not apply in a situation where the administrative law textbooks would previously have said that it must apply,” concluded administrative law scholar Michael Kagan in 2017.

In addition to codifying Chevron deference into law, the Stop Corporate Capture Act proposes instituting new requirements for material submitted during public comment periods, including new disclosure standards for scientific studies and new penalties for corporations found to have submitted “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent” information. The legislation would also require agencies to prioritize regulations that offer the most benefits to the public, regardless of costs, and would allow agencies to reinstate rules repealed under the Congressional Review Act, among other provisions. 

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OPM moves to rescind Trump-era policy on poor-performing federal employees

What’s the story? 

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on January 4, 2022, issued a proposed rule aimed at rescinding regulations issued under the Trump administration regarding poor-performing federal employees.

OPM issued the rules in November 2020 pursuant to President Donald Trump’s (R) Executive Order 13839, which aimed to streamline the discipline and dismissal processes for poor-performing federal employees. The regulations directed agency approaches to employee probationary and improvement periods, barred agencies from entering into settlement agreements with employees, and shortened the time frame for employees to respond to allegations of misconduct or poor performance.

President Joe Biden (D) on January 22, 2021, issued Executive Order 14003, rescinding E.O. 13839 and directing OPM to repeal the Trump-era regulations. In its proposed rule to implement Biden’s directive, OPM argued that the rules “removed previous flexibilities enjoyed by agencies in how to address performance issues with their employees.” The proposed rule is open for public comment through February 3, 2022.

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In the states

States challenge coronavirus (COVID-19) requirements for federal Head Start programs

What’s the story? 

Attorneys general in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana have opposed the Biden administration’s coronavirus (COVID-19)-related requirements for federal Head Start programs. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on November 30, 2021, issued an interim final rule mandating vaccination for employees and contractors of federal Head Start programs and requiring masks for students ages two and older.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lubbock Independent School District on December 10, 2021, filed a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the rule. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry followed suit on Dec. 21, filing a lawsuit arguing in part that the Head Start requirements exceed the authority of the executive branch. Attorneys general from 23 other states joined Landry’s lawsuit.

Judge James Wesley Hendrix of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas on December 31, 2021, blocked enforcement of the rule in Texas, arguing in part that Congress did not delegate authority to HHS to issue vaccine or mask requirements for Head Start programs. The next day, Judge Terry Doughty of the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana blocked enforcement of the rule in Louisiana and 23 other states.

“​​This Court has no hesitation in finding that the Head Start Mandate is a decision of vast economic significance and that Congress has not clearly spoken to give Agency Defendants the authority to impose it,” wrote Doughty in the order.

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Biden administration releases Fall 2021 Unified Agenda

The Biden administration in December released the Fall 2021 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions—a semiannual publication of recently completed, ongoing, and anticipated federal regulations. The Unified Agenda combines regulatory agendas and other required reports and information from approximately 60 departments, agencies, and commissions of the federal government.

“The regulatory plans and agendas submitted by agencies and included here offer blueprints for how the Administration plans to continue delivering on the President’s agenda as we build back better,” stated the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the document’s introduction. “We are proud to shine a light on the regulatory agenda as a way to share with the public how the themes of equity, prosperity and public health cut across everything we do to improve the lives of the American people.”

The Fall 2021 Unified Agenda identifies 68 federal agencies tasked with 3,777 rules in the active, just-completed, and long-term stages, according to an analysis in Forbes

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Regulatory tally: 2021 in review

Federal Register

Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)

OIRA’s 2021 regulatory review activity included the following actions:

  • Review of 502 significant regulatory actions. 
  • Twenty-five rules approved without changes; recommended changes to 383 proposed rules; 90 rules withdrawn from the review process; four rules subject to a statutory or judicial deadline.
  • As of January 3, 2022, OIRA’s website listed 72 regulatory actions under review.
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