Supreme Court Rejects Challenges to Vaccine Mandates in “Shadow Docket” Rulings

In a pair of emergency docket decisions, the Supreme Court rejected two appeals challenging coronavirus vaccine mandates in educational settings. In the first, decided by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a group of Indiana University students contested the constitutionality of a vaccine mandate for students. In the second, decided by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, New York City public-school employees opposed an executive order to require proof of vaccination. These rulings bolster judicial support of vaccine mandates amidst nationwide debates of COVID-19 vaccination requirements and discredit critiques of emergency docket proceedings.

Both cases attempted to exploit the Court’s emergency docket, colloquially referred to as the “shadow docket” for its alleged lack of transparency. The emergency docket consists of urgent requests to the Supreme Court that permit rulings in the form of short summary decisions, as opposed to the standard full briefing and oral argument. These appeals are given to the Justice who oversees the Circuit Court associated with the case. The Justice can then choose how the Supreme Court will proceed, either by acting on the case alone or by turning to the whole court. Critics contend that the emergency docket acts “without the benefit of full briefing” on critical issues and oftentimes without the public release of the rationale behind the decision. 

On May 21, Indiana University reported that they would require students, staff, and faculty to be vaccinated against COVID-19 barring medical or religious exemptions. In response, eight students filed suit against the university in Klaasen v. Trustees of Indiana University, claiming that the vaccine mandate infringed upon their “constitutional rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, and medical choice.” Additionally, the students contended that, because the risks of the coronavirus are low for college-age students, a vaccine mandate is not necessary in the first place. After initially being denied by a district court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed to deny the students’ request, citing as precedent Jacobsen v. Massachusetts–a 1905 case that reaffirmed the constitutionality of smallpox vaccine mandates. The students then filed an emergency request with Justice Barrett, who manages emergency appeals from Seventh Circuit. On Aug. 12, Justice Barrett rejected the students’ case without a statement, asking for the state to take action, or involving the rest of the Court, suggesting that the Supreme Court did not view this as “a particularly close case.”

Maniscalco v. New York City Department of Education began with four employees in the New York City public-school system questioning an executive order from Aug. 23 that requires public-school employees to prove vaccination against COVID-19. The group noted that other public sector workers, particularly some who interact with children, would not be required to get vaccinated as long as they received weekly testing. In contrast, unvaccinated public-school staff would be placed on unpaid leave, an action that the petitioner alleged was a breach of their “substantive due process and equal protection rights.” Similar to the previous request, a district court and the Second Circuit declined to block the state’s vaccine mandate, before Justice Sotomayor was called to grant an emergency injunction. Justice Sotomayor, like Justice Barrett, acted alone in dismissing the emergency request, leaving New York City’s vaccination requirement in place. 

As a whole, these rulings illustrate the reluctance of certain Supreme Court Justices, if not the entire Court, to repeal state vaccine mandates — regardless of ideology or political ties. Justice Barrett, a conservative, and Justice Sotomayor, a liberal, both similarly rejected appeals to overturn vaccine mandates in public education. Additionally, these requests provide justification for the emergency docket’s existence. Not everything brought to the Supreme Court is a narrow 5-4 decision and some, such as the two aforementioned requests, possess a degree of consensus that would render a full oral argument an inefficient use of time. However, should there be a truly urgent case, the emergency docket ensures that swift action can be taken. 


Andrew Touma is a sophomore from Fort Gratiot, Michigan studying Public Policy.

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