Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Fifth Circuit Says President Can Impose Vaccine Mandate on Guardmembers, but not Punish Them for Noncompliance
The Fifth Circuit ruled that President Biden likely lacked authority to enforce a federal COVID vaccine mandate on state national guard members who aren't called up for federal service. The ruling gives state governors broad authority to decline to enforce (and thus undermine) certain federal readiness requirements on state national guard members.
The case, Abbott v. Biden, tested the federal government's authority to punish not-called-up state national guard members for failing to comply with the federal COVID vaccine requirement. (Everybody agreed that the federal government could punish national guard members who are called up to federal service. But that wasn't at issue in the case.) Governor Abbott argued that President Biden lacked authority to punish, and that punishment was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Fifth Circuit ruled for Abbott. The court said that under the Constitution's militia clauses, the President can impose a vaccine requirement, but the President can't punish not-called-up guard members for noncompliance. The court's analysis turned on the language of the "organizing clause," which says (with emphasis),
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
The court held that only the states, and not the federal government, could enforce the vaccine mandate against not-called-up guard members, because enforcement is part of "governing." The court said that enforcement is not part of "disciplining" (which would have allowed the federal government to enforce even against not-called-up guard members), because "disciplining" at the founding meant educating and instructing, not enforcing or punishing.
As to the APA issue, the court remanded the case for further consideration of whether federal punishment was arbitrary and capricious in light of Abbott's argument that punishing guard members would undermine the guard's ability to do its job. The court quoted Abbott's argument:
Guardsmen are not mere supplement to the federal military, but a vital part of each State's ability to secure its citizens' property, liberty, and lives--a vitality that is sapped by drumming Guardsmen out of militia service [as punishment for failure to take the vaccine]. The Defendants' failure to weigh those considerations before upending the Texas National Guard's chain of command requires that the Enforcement Memoranda be set aside.