WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Thursday stopped the Biden administration's vaccination-or-testing requirement on the nation's largest employers, expressing doubt that there is legal authority for such a broad mandate.
But the court allowed a different policy, which requires vaccinations for most health-care workers at the facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds.
The court's conservative majority concluded that the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses that have at least 100 employees.
More than 80 million people would have been affected, and OSHA had estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.
"OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the covid-19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here," the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.
In dissent, the court's three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts.
"Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies," Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.
President Joe Biden said he was "disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law."
Biden called on businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements, noting that a third of Fortune 100 companies already have done so.
The rules were set to take effect Jan. 4, but OSHA pushed back the date in response to the litigation and said it would not immediately issue citations for those not in compliance.
Soon after the administration announced the rules for private companies in November, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of the policy.
But lawsuits emerged around the nation and were consolidated for review by a different court. A panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved the 5th Circuit's stay, saying the rules could go into effect.
The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and encouraging private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.
The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, called the Supreme Court's decision "a significant victory for employers."
In an unsigned opinion, the court wrote: "The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have."
The vaccination mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority.
The mandate covers most health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It affects 10.4 million workers at 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers.
The rule has medical and religious exemptions.
Biden said that decision by the court "will save lives."
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying Congress did not expressly authorize the power to require vaccinations.
"These cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID-19 vaccines. They are only about whether [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo," he wrote, joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.
Alito wrote a separate dissent that the other three conservatives also joined.
The states challenging the policy said the federal government did not have such coercive powers over the states. As a practical matter, they said, worker opposition to the vaccine would cost the facilities skilled employees at the time when they are most needed.
A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a request from Florida to stop the requirement. But a district judge in Missouri stopped the rules, and the 5th Circuit agreed with a challenge from Louisiana.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the litigation, OSHA announced that it would not penalize companies for not complying with employee testing requirements before Feb. 9, as long as employers show "reasonable, good faith efforts" to meet the standards.
Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half of the states. The administration already was taking steps to enforce it elsewhere.
In response to concerns about a shortage of health care workers, the administration said the secretary of health and human services has given facilities some flexibility to meet the new requirements, including an additional 60 days to get employees fully vaccinated. The agency also said it will hold off on any enforcement action, as long as 90% of the workforce is vaccinated and the facility has a plan to immunize its remaining workers.
More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.
The courthouse remains closed to the public, and lawyers and reporters are asked for negative test results before being allowed inside the courtroom for arguments, though vaccinations are not required.
The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict that they issued Thursday.
A separate vaccine mandate for federal contractors, on hold after lower courts blocked it, has not been considered by the Supreme Court.
The OSHA cases are National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor and Ohio v. Department of Labor. The health-care worker cases are Biden v. Missouri and Becerra v. Louisiana.
Information for this article was contributed by Mark Sherman, Jessica Gresko and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press; and by Robert Barnes of The Washington Post.