Judge 'puzzled' by Chicago FFs' emergency request seeking freeze on vaccine mandate
U.S. District Judge John Lee, who plans to rule on the issue Friday, questioned why disclosure of vaccination status was a constitutional issue
CHICAGO — A federal judge on Tuesday said he was “puzzled” by an emergency request by more than 100 Chicago firefighters and other city employees seeking a freeze on vaccine mandate orders by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
The 130 plaintiffs named in the federal suit, mostly Chicago firefighters and paramedics, are asking U.S. District Judge John Lee for a temporary restraining order that would halt the city’s requirement that all city workers report their vaccination status or risk being put on no-pay status.
The suit also challenges Pritzker’s statewide order requiring health care workers and certain other state employees to be fully vaccinated.
During Tuesday’s 45-minute hearing, which was held by videoconference, Lee asked several pointed questions to plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Lubin, including why forcing employees to disclose their vaccination status was even a constitutional issue at all.
“I look puzzled because I am puzzled,” Lee said. “Because don’t we have to disclose medical information for all sorts of different jobs? Why is this any different?”
In his response, Lubin started to argue that the “political nature” of the vaccine debate with COVID-19 could not be divorced from the legal issues — but the judge cut him off.
“I don’t care about the political,” Lee said. “This is a court of law.”
Lee gave Lubin two days to file a response to his questions in writing and said he planned to rule on the request on Friday afternoon.
A temporary restraining order is a high legal hurdle to clear under most circumstances, and recent case law suggests the bid for one here is a long shot at best.
Just two months ago, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Indiana University’s requirement that on-campus students be vaccinated, writing that students who don’t like the policy are free to seek educational opportunities elsewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency appeal of that ruling.
That 7th Circuit ruling was pinned on a Supreme Court case from the early 1900s that found states could mandate residents be vaccinated for smallpox.
Lee asked Lubin to explain in his written response why those higher court opinions were not “dispositive of the issues here.”
The lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court was the latest seeking court intervention to try to undo the city’s vaccination mandate, joining a more high-profile showdown led by Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara.
The 16-page lawsuit alleged that it’s unconstitutional for employees to stand to lose their jobs over their “deeply held beliefs that they should not take the COVID-19 vaccine.”
“In this case, plaintiffs have been given an unconstitutional and illegal ultimatum: violate their deeply held beliefs or be suspended and then terminated,” Lubin wrote in the suit. “They will suffer irreparable harm as a matter of law if this court does not intervene.”
Lawyers for the both the city and state, meanwhile, argued in separate filings Monday that the lawsuit has no legal merit and should be denied.
As city employees, the plaintiffs “undertook certain obligations” when choosing to enter public service, such as obeying dress codes and drug and ethics policies, and the city’s vaccination policy is “fundamentally no different,” wrote attorney Michael Warner of the city’s Law Department.
Warner wrote the plaintiffs have the same choice to make as anyone else whose employer adopts a lawful policy: “They can elect to comply with the policy, or they can seek other employment.”
An Illinois House committee also has a hearing scheduled Tuesday afternoon on a proposal that would specify that the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, cited in the federal lawsuit, does not apply to vaccine mandates and other measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Pritzker has pushed for the change in the face of numerous lawsuits challenging his vaccine requirements, but its prospects in the General Assembly are uncertain.
The federal lawsuit is separate from on ongoing fight between the city and FOP in Cook County Circuit Court over the city’s vaccine order, which required all city employees to submit their vaccination status by Oct. 15. Those who are unvaccinated can instead undergo regular COVID-19 testing for the rest of the year.
The FOP has refused to cooperate, with Catanzara repeatedly urging members to disobey the city until a Cook County judge issued a temporary restraining order barring him from such public statements. That order was lifted Monday.
As of Monday, 23 Chicago police officers had been placed on no-pay status for refusing to comply with the city’s order. A week ago, that number that number stood at 21.
The number of police officers who have filled out the form has risen slightly over the past week, from 65% to 70% compliance. Police Superintendent David Brown has said many staffers are choosing to comply after speaking with higher-ups about how the mandate works.
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.