In the first test of COVID-19 vaccine requirements to arrive at the Supreme Court, a group of Indiana University students asked the justices on Friday afternoon to block the school’s requirement that all students be vaccinated against the virus. Both a federal district court in Indiana and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit declined to put the university’s vaccine requirement on hold while the students litigate their challenge, leading to Friday’s filing seeking immediate relief from the justices.
Indiana University announced the rule on May 21. It requires all faculty, students and staff to be vaccinated unless they qualify for an exemption, such as having a medical reason not to get the vaccine or a religious objection. The students say that a failure to take the vaccine, which has not yet received full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, will result in “strong consequences” that “amount to virtual expulsion,” including having class registration canceled.
In their 31-page filing in the Supreme Court, the students – represented by James Bopp, the conservative lawyer who brought the landmark campaign-finance case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission – argue that they must give up their constitutional rights to “bodily integrity, autonomy, and medical choice” and “comply with Indiana University’s mandate” so that they can “receive a government benefit (matriculating at IU).” The students urge the justices to step in to address these issues and provide the lower courts with guidance for what they predict will be a “flood of COVID vaccine mandate-related cases.”
The students say the university’s interests aren’t sufficiently strong to justify the vaccine requirement, because the risks of death or serious illness from COVID-19 for college students are “close to zero.” They also argue that the mandate is simultaneously too broad (because it applies to young people for whom the risks from COVID are low, but for whom the risks from the vaccine are higher) and underinclusive (because the “radically expanded exemptions” from the requirement “have virtually guaranteed anyone can get” one).
On July 18, a district judge denied the students’ request for a court order blocking the mandate. And on Monday, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit declined to put the mandate on hold while the litigation proceeds. In a four-page opinion for the 7th Circuit, Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that the university’s policy is clearly constitutional under Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the 1905 case in which the Supreme Court upheld a vaccine mandate for smallpox.
“Each university may decide what is necessary to keep other students safe in a congregate setting,” Easterbrook wrote, noting that medical exams and vaccines against other diseases are routine requirements for attending college. “Vaccination protects not only the vaccinated persons but also those who come in contact with them, and at a university close contact is inevitable.”
The case, Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, goes to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is responsible for emergency appeals from the 7th Circuit. Barrett can either act on the request herself or refer it to the full court.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.