US president Joe Biden. File photo: POOL via REUTERS/GREG NASH
US president Joe Biden. File photo: POOL via REUTERS/GREG NASH

Washington — The US Supreme Court on Friday is set to consider requests by Republican state officials and business groups to block President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 workers and a similar requirement for healthcare facilities at a time of surging Covid-19 cases nationwide.

The nine justices are scheduled to hear at least two hours of arguments beginning at 10am ET (3pm GMT) in two cases that present a test of presidential powers to combat a public health crisis that has left more than 830,000 Americans dead.

The White House has said the two temporary mandates will save lives and strengthen the US economy by increasing the number of vaccinated Americans by the millions.

The challengers have argued that the federal government exceeded its authority by imposing requirements not specifically authorised by Congress and failed to follow the proper administrative processes for issuing emergency regulations.

The court’s 6-3 conservative majority in the past has shown scepticism toward sweeping actions by federal agencies.

Under one of the policies, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required that workers at businesses with 100 or more employees be vaccinated or tested weekly, a policy applying to more than 80-million workers nationwide.

The state of Ohio and the National Federation of Independent Business are taking the lead in seeking to block that mandate. Religious groups including the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are among those also challenging the policy in separate cases.

Under the second policy under review by the Supreme Court, vaccination is required for an estimated 10.3-million workers at about 76,000 healthcare facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid government health insurance programmes for elderly, disabled and low-income Americans.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency responsible for administering the two programmes, issued the rule. The states of Missouri and Louisiana are taking the lead in the arguments before the justices seeking an order blocking it.

The Supreme Court has dealt with several pandemic-related cases already and rejected religious-based challenges to state vaccine requirements. Friday’s cases for the first time test the federal government's authority to issue vaccine mandates.

The court in other pandemic-related cases has backed religious challenges to certain restrictions and ended the federal government’s residential eviction moratorium, originally imposed under former President Donald Trump.

As in many countries, vaccination has become a divisive issue in the US, with some people adamantly opposed and many Republicans critical of mandates imposed by governments and businesses. The US and countries around the world are facing an upswing in Covid-19 cases driven by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Biden's administration is asking the justices to lift orders by federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana blocking the healthcare worker mandate in half the 50 states while litigation on the legal merits of the policy continues.

The Cincinnati-based sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals on December 17 lifted an injunction issued by another court that had blocked the OSHA rule regarding large businesses, prompting challengers to ask the Supreme Court to intervene.

Biden’s administration is arguing that Congress gave federal agencies broad leeway to require employers to protect workers and Medicare and Medicaid patients from health and safety hazards.

Decisions in both cases are expected quickly, with the administration's deadlines for compliance looming.

The nine justices spent most of the pandemic working remotely but returned to in-person arguments in October. All nine are fully vaccinated, the court said.

Reuters

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