Law & Courts

Sotomayor Declines Parents’ Request for Relief From School Vaccination Requirements

By Mark Walsh — January 29, 2021 3 min read
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A U.S. Supreme Court justice on Friday denied an emergency injunction to a group of parents in New York state who have sought to have their children participate in remote public school instruction despite their refusal to receive required school vaccinations.

The parents say their children have medically fragile conditions and have doctor’s exemptions from vaccines that would harm them.

“Excluding medically fragile children from distance learning because they are missing a vaccine that might harm or kill them serves no valid state interest and will cause irreparable harm,” said the injunction request submitted to Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor is the circuit justice for the three states—Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. In a brief order on Jan. 29, the justice denied the parents’ emergency injunction request in Doe v. Zucker (Case No. 20A135).

New York state, which tightened its vaccine requirements after a measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019, said in papers filed in a lower court that school districts denied medical exemptions to the students because the children’s physicians had not cited “a specific contraindication or precaution consistent with a nationally recognized evidence-based standard of care,” as required by a 2019 regulation adopted by the New York State Department of Health.

“The state’s vaccination rules remain in force even though many children admitted at schools are learning remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state said in the brief. “These rules are meant to protect not only children’s classmates and teachers, but also the public at large. … Because remote-learning children remain part of the community, lower vaccination rates among them could contribute to contagious disease outbreaks.”

New York state repealed its religious exemption to school immunization requirements in 2019 after the measles outbreak, and the health department tightened rules for granting medical exemptions.

Seven families in upstate New York sued the state health department and several area school districts in July 2020, arguing that school immunization requirements and districts’ refusal to allow the children to learn remotely violated their 14th Amendment due-process right to direct the upbringing of their children, among other rights.

The children suffer from such conditions as autoimmune encephalitis or Hirschsprung’s Disease, or have suffered adverse reactions to vaccines in the past, the suit says.

A federal district judge last year denied a preliminary injunction, ruling that it is well settled that the states may establish mandatory school vaccination requirements and give local officials enforcement authority.

“The court concludes that the public health concerns in maintaining high immunization rates for vaccine-preventable diseases and in avoiding outbreaks of communicable diseases provide ample basis for the newly enacted regulations,” U.S. District Judge Brenda K. Sannes of Syracuse, N.Y., wrote in an Oct. 22 decision.

The families asked the 2nd Circuit court for an emergency injunction that would allow their children to enroll in school remotely, which New York state and school districts opposed.

“This case involves the interests of approximately 0.5 percent of school children’s attendance in school in comparison to the school districts’ interests in protecting the other 99%+ of the public-school population and the general public,” said a brief filed by about a dozen school districts.

The 2nd Circuit court denied the families’ request in a brief order on Jan. 5. The families then filed the emergency request with Sotomayor.

“These children will continue to be irreparably harmed each day they continue to be excluded from school, and there is clearly no harm in allowing them to learn remotely,” the request for an emergency injunction said.

Neither New York state nor the school districts filed papers in the Supreme Court in response before Sotomayor turned away the families’ request. The families may still pursue their 2nd Circuit appeal of the district court’s decision in the case.

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