“Our Courts, Our Fight” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties and the need for the Senate to confirm President Biden’s federal court nominees to help counteract these effects . Supreme and appellate court cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Texas District Judge James Hendrix issued a preliminary injunction that halted a federal regulation requiring COVID-19 vaccination for staff and wearing of masks by children and staff in Head Start programs in Texas, despite findings by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that the rule was needed to “protect the health and safety of Head Start children, families and staff” and to “mitigate the spread” of COVID-19 in such programs. The December 31, 2021 decision was in Texas v Becerra. The very next day, Trump judge Terry Doughty, who had previously blocked a vaccination rule concerning health care workers who see vulnerable Medicare and Medicaid patients, issued a similar order that halted the important Head Start requirements in Louisiana and 22 other states. The January 1, 2022 ruling was in Louisiana v Becerra.
As part of the Biden Administration’s Path out of the Pandemic effort, HHS issued on November 30 a rule that requires that schools and others who receive federal funds and administer Head Start programs for 3-5 year-old children ensure that staff be vaccinated for COVID-19 and that staff and children wear masks indoors. After extensive research and consultation with experts, HHS found that the rule is “necessary and appropriate” to “avoid severe illness, hospitalization and death” of Head Start children and staff as well as “closure of Head Start programs” that are crucial to low-income communities. The rule explained that it was authorized by federal law that allows HHS to set “conditions” for Head Start programs and funding, including measures that have previously been adopted to require infection control and vaccination of eligible children for other diseases for which they are eligible. The COVID-19 vaccine has not been approved for children under 5, the regulation noted, making vaccination of staff all the more important. The masking requirement took effect immediately, while the vaccine rule is to take effect at the end of January.
As with other COVID-19 requirements discussed in this blog, many states with Republican governors and others challenged the Head Start rule. Based largely on decisions by Trump judges against other vaccine requirements, Trump judge Hendrix granted the Texas attorney general’s request for a preliminary injunction to freeze the rule in that state, although he declined to extend the injunction nationwide. His rationale was largely the same as in previous cases, claiming that Congress has not provided specific enough “statutory authority” for the rule, that decisions on such requirements should be made by “state – not federal agencies,” and that the rule is injuring Texas “quasi-sovereign interests” and risked “staff shortages.” Trump judge Doughty’s claims the next day were very similar, with Doughty also arguing that the “separation of powers has never been so thin” as a result of such rules and that a decision in their favor would risk the country becoming “a monarchy.”
Like the previous anti-vax rulings, these decisions will likely be appealed, and the issue will probably be decided by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, these two Trump judge injunctions contradict the expert judgment of health officials and risk serious harm to the health of vulnerable children and their families. These cases provide even more examples of the importance, as part of our fight for our courts, of ensuring that the Senate promptly confirms fair-minded district court judges, as well as those on the courts of appeals, who will appropriately respect Congress’ authority as well as expert agency judgment on crucial issues like COVID-19.