US appeals court walks back COVID-19 vaccine requirement for federal employees

A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower court decision to block the government from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine requirement on federal employees — reversing a previous ruling from a smaller panel of its own judges.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a rare en banc rehearing that a preliminary nationwide injunction on the vaccine mandate should remain in place while the case proceeds.

The decision overturns that of a three-judge appeals panel, which ruled last April to uphold the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal employees.

At issue is whether the Texas district court that ordered the preliminary injunction had the jurisdiction, given the existence of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), which protects employees from unfair or unwanted practices by federal employers.

However, the full appeals court found that the case, brought by a 6,000-member organization known as Feds for Medical Freedom, falls outside the purview of the CSRA because they are challenging the vaccine mandate on the grounds that the president exceeded his constitutional authority.

“Plaintiffs’ complaint does not challenge any personnel action reviewable under the CSRA. Nor does it challenge any personnel action they could hypothetically incur in the future,” the court said in Thursday’s opinion. “Rather, plaintiffs claim that the President’s vaccine mandate violates the U.S. Constitution and the [Administrative Procedure Act].”

The court also noted that both sides will eventually have to “grapple with the White House’s announcement that the COVID emergency will finally end on May 11, 2023.”

Biden first issued the vaccine mandate in September 2021, ordering all federal employees to get vaccinated or face disciplinary actions, including termination. However, the order permitted exceptions for religious and medical reasons.

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