D.C. coronavirus vaccine mandate for government workers is ‘unlawful,’ judge says


A D.C. Superior Court judge on Thursday said the vaccination mandate Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) imposed on city government workers earlier this year was unlawful.

The order from Judge Maurice A. Ross comes in response to a lawsuit filed in February by the D.C. Police Union and other police groups that opposed the mandate, which was first imposed by Bowser last year. The August 2021 mayor’s order instructed D.C. government employees to submit proof that they had received the coronavirus vaccination, although workers could also apply for religious or medical exemptions or opt for weekly testing instead.

In November 2021, however, Bowser issued another mayor’s order that empowered the D.C. city administrator to remove the test-out option. In January, city officials said D.C. government employees who did not apply for a religious or medical exemption were required to get vaccinated by Feb. 15, including a booster shot, with enforcement set to begin the following month. The city implemented a tiered discipline system for those without exemptions, which could result in suspension or being fired.

The mandate frustrated many within the city’s police ranks. D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III told the city council in March that the department was losing a “significant” number of recruits because they did not want to be vaccinated, DCist reported at the time. Other police unions, including in New York City and Chicago, challenged vaccination mandates in those cities as well.

A D.C. Superior Court judge in February denied the police groups’ efforts to block the mandate. But Ross said Thursday that Bowser lacked the legal authority to impose the mandate, arguing in part that she did not have the statutory power to do so, and that the D.C. Police Officers Standards and Training Board had the ability to establish its own health standards for the department.

Ross also said that such a mandate would have been more appropriately implemented by the D.C. Council rather than through executive orders, adding: “The power to issue a vaccine mandate must come from a legislative body.”

“It is undisputed that the Mayor has a strong interest in combating the spread of Covid-19,” the order reads. “However, our system does not permit the Mayor to act unlawfully even in the pursuit of desirable ends.”

Ross’s order says Bowser is “permanently enjoined from implementing, imposing and/or enforcing the covid-19 vaccine mandate … against the plaintiffs,” and that all disciplinary actions related to the mandate “shall immediately cease and be dismissed with full reimbursement to be provided to all [Fraternal Order of Police] members for any loss of benefits, pay, or rights and all related disciplinary proceedings to be expunged from their records.”

Bowser’s administration issued a statement Friday indicating it was still reviewing the ruling, and that it believes Ross “misunderstood the strength and diversity of the authorities we relied upon in issuing the employee vaccination mandate.” The statement praised residents and workers who got their vaccinations.

“Going forward, we will comply with the Court’s orders as we continue encouraging our community to access life-saving vaccines,” the statement said.

As of March 28, 90 percent of the city’s employees were fully or partially vaccinated, according to city data provided to The Washington Post. More recent data related to discipline was not immediately available.

D.C. Police Union chairman Gregg Pemberton celebrated the judge’s ruling in a statement, calling it a “significant victory.”

“[The order] ensures that they will no longer be forced to receive the COVID-19 vaccine against their will and will no longer be subjected to discipline for deciding not to receive the vaccine,” Pemberton wrote.

This article has been updated to include a statement from Bowser’s administration.


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