Justice Barrett Rejects Indiana University Students Vaccine Mandate Challenge
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Justice Amy Coney Barrett Rejects Indiana Students’ Bid to Block COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett stands during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.

A band of Indiana University students who failed to overturn their school’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate at every turn received no more sympathy from Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who unceremoniously rejected their emergency application for an injunction without comment on Thursday.

“With a third ruling, now from the nation’s highest court, affirming Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, we look forward to beginning fall semester with our health and safety policies in place,” the university’s spokesman Chuck Carney told Law&Crime in an email. “We are grateful to those who have stepped up to protect themselves and others; 85% of our students, faculty and staff are approaching full vaccination.”

Led by lead plaintiff Ryan Klaassen, the eight students argued that the vaccine mandates violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, a theory that has failed before every court that heard it. The emphatic defeats had not been unexpected, since the Supreme Court has found vaccine mandates legal for more than a century.

“To answer the question today, the court travels back in time to 1905: a time before the modern tiers of constitutional analysis (strict scrutiny and rational basis) and one rampaged by the smallpox epidemic,” U.S. District Judge Damon R. Leichty, a Donald Trump appointee, noted in June, citing the case of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“In that year, the United States Supreme Court issued a leading decision in answer to this question,” Leichty added.

Three GOP-appointed judges soon concurred that century-old settled law was still binding.

U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook, appointed by Ronald Reagan to the Seventh Circuit, noted that there cannot be a constitutional problem with state-enforced vaccine mandates, which have been permissible since the time of smallpox.

“To the contrary, vaccination requirements, like other public health measures, have been common in this nation,” Easterbrook wrote.

Joined by Trump-appointed Circuit Judges Michael Y. Scudder and Thomas Lee Kirsch, Easterbrook tore apart the framing of the issue as one of personal autonomy.

“We assume with plaintiffs that they have a right in bodily integrity,” the three-judge panel wrote earlier this month. “They also have a right to hold property. Yet they or their parents must surrender property to attend Indiana University. Undergraduates must part with at least $11,000 a year, even though Indiana could not summarily confiscate that sum from all residents of college age.”

Kirsch, who joined that opinion, is Barrett’s successor to the Seventh Circuit.

The students’ attorney James Bopp Jr.—a Republican power broker behind the landmark Supreme Court precedent Citizens United, which paved the way for the rise of super PACs in political financing—promptly filed an emergency application for an injunction on Aug. 6. Barrett put the kibosh on that request on Thursday.

Bopp did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

(ERIN SCHAFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks.