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Judge denies Mass. correction officers union bid to stop state vaccine mandate

Gov. Charlie Baker’s mandate went into effect Sunday

COVID-19 vaccine

“The Court finds the balance weighs in favor of the broader public interests,” Judge Timothy Hillman wrote in his decision late Friday.

Brooke Herbert

By Amy Sokolow
Boston Herald

BOSTON — A U.S. District Court judge denied the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union’s bid for an injunction stopping the Gov. Charlie Baker vaccine mandate from taking effect on Sunday.

“Even considering the economic impact on the Plaintiffs if they choose not to be vaccinated, when balancing that harm against the legitimate and critical public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the vaccination rate, particularly in congregate facilities, the Court finds the balance weighs in favor of the broader public interests,” Judge Timothy Hillman wrote in his decision Friday evening.

The day before, an attorney representing the union made several arguments in favor of the officers not being required to follow the mandate, including that there are other measures such as masking and regular testing that could work in place of the mandate.

Hillman said in his decision that “an increased vaccination rate in the overall population reduces the opportunity for new variants of SARS CoV-2 to emerge,” and gave the rise of the more infectious delta variant of the virus as an example of the importance of vaccination instead of masking.

He also cited research that points to the effectiveness of the vaccine and of high population-level vaccination rates preventing breakthrough cases among other vaccinated people.

Hillman echoed an argument a lawyer for the Commonwealth made Thursday, noting that correction officers have to follow other rules per their collective bargaining agreement such as being subject to drug testing, adhering to certain fitness and grooming standards and requiring certain testing and other protocols for officers for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

On the labor issue, Hillman wrote that because the union is pursuing similar claims with the Department of Labor Relations, “that precludes Plaintiffs from seeking to vindicate those same rights in this Court.”

Hillman also cited a 1905 Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, writing that the court allowed cities and towns to implement vaccine mandates to contain smallpox outbreaks. In that case, the court wrote that the Constitution “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint,” and allowed communities to protect themselves against “an epidemic disease.”

In a letter the union sent to members Friday, the executive board wrote that although they had known “that winning would be an extremely difficult and uphill battle, we still remain very sorry to report the news to you that we were unsuccessful here.” The members also called the religious and medical exemption process for the mandate “nothing short of a scandal” without an appeals process or interviews for those seeking exemptions.

“We will be litigating the entire exemption process, as well as the denial of our members’ rights to be heard,” the letter states, though it acknowledged that that work would not impede the mandate deadline of this Sunday.

This is the second time Gov. Baker’s mandate has stood up to court challenges. A state judge denied a similar request for an injunction from the State Police union last month, citing similar reasons.

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