Health Law

Creating circuit split, 9th Circuit rules Biden had power to require vaccines for federal contractors

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President Joe Biden had the authority to issue an executive order requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees of federal contractors, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The April 19 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco creates a split with three other federal appeals courts, report, Law360, Reuters and a blog post published by Morrison Foerster.

Biden had issued the order in September 2021 under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, which is also known as the Procurement Act.

The 9th Circuit reversed a district court permanent injunction that had blocked the contractor mandate as applied to Arizona contractors and to work performed in the state.

“The president appropriately relied on a statute that gave him the necessary flexibility and broad-ranging authority to ensure economy and efficiency in federal procurement and contracting,” the appeals court said in an opinion by Judge Mark J. Bennett, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. “The president issued the contractor mandate following the required procedural measures.”

The 9th Circuit said the “major questions” doctrine doesn’t limit actions by a president because it applied only to actions of federal agencies. The doctrine requires Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.

“The ‘major questions’ doctrine is motivated by skepticism of agency interpretations that ‘would bring about an enormous and transformative expansion in … regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization,’” the 9th Circuit said, quoting from a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision. “Those concerns are not implicated here as the president ‘does not suffer from the same lack of political accountability that agencies may.’”

The federal government has not sought to enforce its contractor vaccine mandate anywhere in the United States since October 2022, according to Reuters. The article said the decision is a reaction to rulings blocking the requirement, as well as pending legal challenges.

Hugh Murray, chair of the labor and employment practice at McCarter & English, told Law360 that the Biden administration is unlikely to try to restart the mandate and could scrap it entirely. He cited the end of the national COVID-19 emergency as one reason why. Politics provides another reason.

“The last thing I think they want going into the next election cycle is a focus on vaccine mandates,” Murray said.

The case is Mayes v. Biden.

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