“The key is: can the federal government force you into a medical procedure? Because that’s what’s at stake,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry told Fox News.
“If that is the case, then we are no longer sovereign individuals – we’re basically serfs of the federal government. If that’s where we end up, then we’re on a very, very slippery slope.”
After almost four hours of arguments from both sides of the debate, the Supreme Court appeared to be split on the issue, setting the scene for a potentially explosive decision in a politically charged election year.
Conservative judges – who make up the majority of the nine-member US Supreme Court – questioned whether the Biden administration had the legal authority to force workers from large companies to get inoculated, but appeared to be open to the idea of mandating vaccines for federal health workers.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who is conservative but has proven to be a swing vote on some recent issues such as abortion and mail-in voting, noted that the business workplace requirement “sounds like the sort of thing that states will be responding to or should be, and that Congress should be responding to or should be, rather than… the federal government, the executive branch acting alone.”
The court’s liberal justices, the other hand, focused much of their attention on America’s soaring coronavirus rates, and questioned the plaintiffs on why they were seeking to block a policy designed to mitigate the virus.
“Hospitals are full to overflowing. People all over the world are getting this and they’re dying – or they’re filling up hospital beds and others are dying because they can’t get a bed,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, while questioning Keller.
“So it seems to me that every minute these things are not in effect, thousands of more people are getting this disease… I would find it unbelievable that it could be in the public interest to suddenly stop these vaccinations.”
The hearing came as the US averages more than 500,000 new cases of coronavirus a day – far more than at any previous point in the pandemic.
While the Omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness than other strains, it has nonetheless contributed to increases in hospitalisations across the country, which have increased more than 50 per cent over the last two weeks.
The Supreme Court has expedited the legal challenge due to the sharp rise in cases, and a decision could be handed down as early as next week.
But even a partial pushback could be politically damaging for Biden, who came to office promising to “shut down” the virus – in part through the use of federal vaccine mandates.
Economists have also raised concerns that the latest surge in cases could halt job growth in the coming months, which would add to the Democrats’ uphill battle to retain control of Congress at November’s midterm election.
The latest labour figures released today didn’t paint an entirely rosy picture for the Biden administration. While the unemployment rate has dipped to 3.9 per cent, the economy only added 199,000 jobs in December – down from 249,000 in November.
Biden nonetheless was optimistic about the data, noting that the one-year decline in the unemployment rate was the sharpest ever. “I think it’s a historic day for our economic recovery,” he said.
Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for the weekly What in the World newsletter here.