A federal judge has upheld Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s authority to impose a vaccine mandate as part of a public health order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
U.S. District Court Judge Martha Vázquez rejected two New Mexico women’s legal challenge to the governor’s order requiring health care employees, teachers and other “high risk” workers to be immunized unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.
The lawsuit also contested the governor’s order calling for anyone 12 and older to be fully vaccinated before they attend the New Mexico State Fair — an order that led to the fair’s junior livestock show being canceled.
The women sought an injunction to block the vaccine requirements from being enforced.
But the judge ruled the arguments claiming the vaccine is unreliable and the mandate infringes on personal liberty did not outweigh the state having to take measures to protect public health.
“The court thus finds that plaintiffs have failed to establish that the balance of harms weighs in their favor or that granting the requested injunction would not be adverse to the public interest,” Vázquez wrote in her decision.
Attorney A. Blair Dunn, who represents the women, said he already has filed an appeal and believes they have a chance of winning later, especially if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This idea that you don’t have a right to bodily integrity, you don’t have a right to engage in your chosen profession and the state can strip that away … I don’t see that holding up to real constitutional scrutiny,” Dunn said.
The lawsuit named Lujan Grisham and acting Health Department Secretary David Scrase as defendants.
In an email, a spokesman for the governor wrote the court’s decision validates the health order.
“The Lujan Grisham administration will continue to aggressively defend its public health policies against all attacks and efforts to subvert them and will continue to be successful in defending them,” spokesman Tripp Stelnicki wrote. “These policies are backed by the science, they are informed by public health expertise, and they have saved and are saving lives in New Mexico.”
Jennifer Blackford of Bernalillo County, a registered nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, is one of the two women who filed the lawsuit.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which operates that hospital and others in the state, recently announced it would require its entire workforce to be vaccinated.
In a late August affidavit, Blackford said she had refused the shots because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had only given the vaccines emergency authorization, making them experimental.
But during that same week, the FDA fully approved the Pfizer vaccine and is expected to do likewise for Moderna in the coming weeks.
Dunn said Blackford was put on four months of unpaid administrative leave and must get vaccinated in that time or be deemed to have quit her job.
The other plaintiff, Talisha Valdez, a Clayton resident, opposes vaccination for herself and her two children.
Her kids were going to compete in the junior livestock event at the fair before it was cancelled. One child is 12 and would’ve been required to get the shots to participate.
Valdez said she had no comment about the judge’s decision. In an earlier interview, she said the state shouldn’t compel people to be vaccinated.
“It should be a choice,” Valdez said.
The judge cited a 1905 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Cambridge, Mass., had the authority to require smallpox vaccinations of every resident.
“A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,” the judge wrote, quoting the high court’s majority opinion.
Dunn countered subsequent court rulings require states to have narrow criteria for “forcible or involuntary application of medications.” New Mexico has not met that standard, he argued.
Vázquez’s ruling is the latest court victory for Lujan Grisham’s health orders. Courts have upheld her power to restrict indoor dining and to shut down businesses when cases were surging.
The Democratic governor’s mandate dovetails with President Joe Biden’s recent executive order that requires vaccinations or weekly tests for federal workers, companies with at least 100 workers and people employed at facilities that receive federal funding.
As of Friday, 79.2 percent of adult New Mexicans had received at least one dose and 69.5 percent had completed their series of shots.
Still, Scrase and other health officials say it’s vital to get an even greater share of the population immunized to permanently quell the pandemic.