Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
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A U.S. District Court judge in Georgia on Tuesday temporarily blocked a third COVID-19 vaccine requirement issued by President Joe Biden that would apply to federal contractors and subcontractors. In granting the injunction, which was requested by several states including Idaho, federal judge R. Stan Baker wrote that the plaintiffs have a likelihood of proving that Biden overstepped his executive authority in issuing the mandate.

Montana is not a plaintiff in the legal challenge in Georgia, having joined a parallel lawsuit filed in a Missouri federal court. Even so, Baker’s order prohibits enforcement of the mandate nationwide. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen released a statement Tuesday welcoming the injunction.

“I’ve heard from federal contractors and their employees across the state who were worried they’d be forced to get a vaccine they don’t want,” Knudsen wrote. “Just because a company happens to contract with the federal government does not mean its workers lose their rights. The vaccine mandates are a gross abuse of power — and now three of them are blocked in Montana. I’ll continue to fight President Biden’s unlawful mandates and protect Montanans’ rights.”

Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana issued a similar injunction against a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for health care workers. The requirement, established by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), called for employees at hospitals and other health care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding to receive at least their first dose of the vaccine by Dec. 6. Judge Terry Doughty’s Dec. 1 order said the federal government lacks the authority to implement such a mandate. As did Baker’s order, Doughty blocked enforcement of the mandate nationwide.

Montana is a plaintiff in that Louisiana lawsuit, and Doughty’s order came down one day after Knudsen spoke at a rally protesting the Sidney Health Center’s announcement that it would comply with the CMS requirement. Knudsen and Gov. Greg Gianforte praised Doughty’s order, with Gianforte releasing a statement calling the mandate “unconstitutional” and saying unvaccinated health care workers in Montana could “now breathe a sigh of relief.”

A third federal vaccine requirement was temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court in early November. That requirement, enacted via an emergency change to safety standards enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called for vaccination or regular testing for all workers at companies with 100 or more employees beginning no later than Jan. 4, 2022. Montana is one of 11 states that brought the legal challenge. In a statement supporting the lawsuit, Gianforte denounced the OSHA rule as “illegal” in the state due to the Legislature’s passage this spring of a new law adding vaccination status as a protected class under the Montana Human Rights Act.

“Not only does President Biden’s mandate violate Montana law banning vaccine-based discrimination, but also it will further strain Montana employers already facing a worker shortage,” Gianforte said in a statement released shortly after the lawsuit was filed. “We will use all tools at our disposal to protect Montanans against this gross, unprecedented federal overreach.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines also came out in support of Montana’s legal challenge, calling the OSHA rule “Washington overreach at its worst.”

“I encourage all Montanans to talk with their doctor and get a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, but do not support top-down government mandates,” Daines said in a Nov. 5 statement. “I will continue fighting back in Congress against these mandates that are hurting Montana businesses and workers. No one should have to choose between getting the shot or keeping their job.”

The U.S. Senate is poised to take a vote this week on congressional legislation opposing the OSHA rule. Ahead of the vote, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester issued a statement saying he’s heard repeatedly in recent months from Montana business owners and community leaders concerned about the impacts a vaccine requirement for private companies would have on “their bottom lines and our state’s economy.”

“That’s why I intend to join a bipartisan majority of my colleagues in defending Montana jobs and small businesses against these burdensome regulations,” Tester said in the statement Wednesday. “I strongly urge every eligible Montanan to get vaccinated as soon as possible so we can end this pandemic once and for all.” 

In the latest order Tuesday, Judge Baker noted that the case involving Biden’s mandate for federal contractors is not about whether vaccines are effective, and acknowledged the “tragic toll” that the pandemic has taken on the nation and the world. “However,” he continued, “even in times of crisis this Court must preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the bounds of their constitutionally granted authorities.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...