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Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Uphold University Policy on Attending In-Person Classes During Pandemic

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Uphold University Policy on Attending In-Person Classes During Pandemic

Judge Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, nominated by President Biden to the Third Circuit court of appeals, cast the deciding vote to dismiss a challenge to Rutgers University’s policy of requiring vaccination of students who wanted to attend in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The February 2024 decision was in Children’s Health Defense Inc. v. Rutgers.


What is the background of this case?

As Rutgers University prepared for the 2021-22 academic year, it designed and implemented a policy to facilitate a “safe return to campus” during the COVID pandemic. (New Jersey had required Rutgers and other universities to close their campuses during 2020-21.) The policy gave students three choices: to take classes on line; to get vaccinated for COVID-19; or to apply for a medical or religious exemption, under which they could return to campus and undergo weekly testing and refrain from living in university housing.

Thirteen Rutgers students and Children’s Health Defense, Inc., an anti-vaccine group founded by Robert F Kennedy Jr, filed suit in federal court to challenge the policy as violating the Constitution. A federal district court dismissed the case, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit.


How Did Judge Mongomery-Reeves and the Third Circuit Rule and Why Is It Important?

Judge Montgomery-Reeves cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that upheld the court below in dismissing the challenge to the Rutgers policy. As the majority explained, the courts have made clear that “there is no fundamental right to refuse vaccination.” Rutgers clearly has a “rational basis” for its policy, the court went on, in order to “prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of COVID” among students. Based on clear precedent, the majority also rejected th dissent’s claim that “heightened” scrutiny should apply because the challenge was to “executive” action by Rutgers, as opposed to a lawsuit against state legislation.

Judge Montgomery-Reeves’ deciding vote was obviously important to upholding Rutgers’ efforts to effect a safe return to campus during the COVID pandemic. It also sets an important precedent, particularly in the Third Circuit including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, concerning policies enacted to help prevent the spread of COVID.  In addition, the ruling illustrates the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Montgomery-Reeves to our federal courts.