WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court panel on Wednesday declined to block a lower court ruling that President Joe Biden could not require federal employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
By a 2-1 vote, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stay the lower-court injunction. Judge Stephen A. Higginson dissented noting a dozen district courts rejected requests to block the vaccine rule while a single district judge issued an injunction.
"The only court that can now provide timely relief is the Supreme Court," Higginson wrote.
Biden had issued an order requiring about 3.5 million government workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, barring a religious or medical accommodation, or face discipline or firing.
The court ordered an expedited briefing schedule with court papers due by March 23.
Higginson said the public interest is not served by a U.S. judge "lacking public health expertise and made unaccountable through life tenure, telling the President of the United States, in his capacity as CEO of the federal workforce, that he cannot take the same lifesaving workplace safety measures" as CEOs of companies like United Airlines or Tyson Foods (TSN.N) that have imposed vaccine requirements.
The Justice Department and White House did not immediately comment. Earlier on Wednesday, a group of 45 Republican lawmakers filed a brief in support of the ruling blocking the requirements.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Brown last month also blocked the federal government from disciplining employees who failed to comply.
The White House has said more than 93% of federal employees have received at least one vaccination and 98% have been vaccinated or are seeking a religious or medical exemption.
In mid-January, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the president's COVID-19 vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses, a policy conservative justices deemed an improper imposition on the lives and health of many Americans. The court allowed a separate federal vaccine requirement for healthcare facilities. read more
A third major vaccine requirement aimed at employees of federal contractors like airlines and manufacturers was blocked by a federal judge in December. read more
COVID-19 has killed more than 900,000 people in the United States in the two-year-long pandemic and has weighed heavily on the economy.
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