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Vaccine refuseniks in NYC, military get no Supreme Court sympathy

The Supreme Court didn't take up any new cases Monday, closing the book on one challenge to a Trump-era cap on state and local tax deductions as well as a case from school staff who refused the Covid-19 vaccine.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Coinciding with the deadline for Americans to file their taxes, the Supreme Court hammered the final nail in a long-running case that a group of high-tax states led by New York brought against Trump-era tax code changes.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul chided the justices Monday for leaving a $10,000 cap on deduction for state and local taxes, known as SALT, in place for another three years.

"Though I am disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, I can't give up on fighting for New York families and the tax relief they deserve," Hochul said in a statement this afternoon. "That's why I accelerated our middle-class tax cut, put forward a significant property tax rebate and advanced a suspension of the gas tax in the recently enacted state budget."

The formerly Republican-controlled Congress enacted the cap in 2017 under then-President Donald Trump, painting their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a help both to corporations and middle-class families. Those cuts came disproportionately, however, at the expense of tax breaks that are important to residents of high-tax states, which tend to be Democratic. Under previous law, homeowners could deduct the full cost of property taxes on their federal income taxes.

State tax authorities estimated at the time that the $10,000 SALT deduction cap would increase New Yorkers’ federal taxes by $14.3 billion in 2018 alone, and by an additional $121 billion between 2019 and 2025. At the same, according to that analysis, the residents would receive a disproportionately small share of the tax cuts relative to the amount of taxes they were paying to the federal government before the 2017 law.

New York was joined in its 2018 SALT cap challenge by New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland. The states claimed that Republican lawmakers crafted the provision to target Democratic voters, interfering with the states' constitutionally granted taxing authority.

The case has been unsuccessful but the cap on SALT deductions is slated to expire after 2025, along with most of the law's other individual tax provisions. There have been attempts to raise the cap legislatively in the House of Representatives, but such measures have not cleared the Senate.

Hochul called on the Biden White House and Congress "to undo the damage caused by the Republican tax plan" and restore the full SALT deduction. "With costs rising and New Yorkers hurting, I urge our leaders in Washington to address this critical economic issue as quickly as possible," she said.

The denial appeared in a list of orders Monday that contained no grants. Later that afternoon, the justices issued a separate order denying injunctive relief to Lt. Col. Jonathan Dunn, a member of the Air Force Reserve, who has refused to comply with the Defense Department’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate. Dunn has declined to receive the vaccine based on his religious beliefs and claims he has antibodies from a previous bout with the virus in the summer of 2021. 

Per their custom, the Supreme Court did not offer any reasoning for denying the cases. The order does note, however, that Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch wanted to grant the injunction pending appeal. 

There was no such note in the court's earlier order Monday against four public school employees who challenged New York City's Covid-19 vaccine mandate.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to deny cert in this case,” a spokesman for the New York City law department told Courthouse News on Monday afternoon. “Numerous courts have spoken. The city’s vaccine mandate is on solid legal ground.”

New York City began requiring public school employees to be vaccinated in the fall of 2021. Courts had declined to bar the city from enforcing their policy, which applies to some 150,000 employees and has religious and medical exemptions.

Three of the teachers involved in the case have been fired and a fourth has taken extended leave.

Represented by Barry Black, several school staffers still have a separate legal challenge to the city’s vaccine mandate under the Free Exercise Clause. Black said the case is “likely to be before the Second Circuit” following its remand to district court.

The Air Force implemented its Covid-19 vaccine mandate following the Food and Drug Administration's full approval in August 2021 of the immunization regimens first authorized on an emergency basis.

Servicemembers can seek exemptions from the vaccine for administrative, medical, or religious reasons. While the Defense Department sorts through those appeals and the servicemember remains unvaccinated, they are considered not medically ready for deployment. Those who refuse to be vaccinated and lack an exemption can face administrative and disciplinary action — like the Individual Ready Reserve which disqualifies reserve members from earning pay or credit towards retirement. 

Dunn was previously the commander of the 452nd Contingency Response Squadron — a rapidly worldwide deployable unit — at March Air Reserve Base in California. This position requires him to be ready to deploy on 72 hours’ notice. 

Despite receiving previous vaccines required by the military, Dunn submitted a religious exemption request from the Air Force’s Covid-19 vaccination requirement in October 2021. After being ordered to be vaccinated for Covid-19, Dunn began to think of vaccination had a “quasi-religious sacramental aspect” and compared it to “the ancient Roman laws requiring that sacrifices be made to Caesar.”

“After much prayer, applicant concluded that he ‘cannot participate in such a religious ritual’ — and thus cannot take the vaccine — because, as a Christian, he ‘must render worship to God only,’” Donald Falk, an attorney with Schaerr Jaffe representing Dunn, wrote in an application to the high court following Ninth Circuit defeat.

The Air Force Reserve Command previously denied Dunn’s exemption request because of concerns with military readiness. Dunn then appealed to the Air Force surgeon general who also denied his request. Dunn had one word in his reply to the two-star general: “NUTS!” 

He explained to the high court in last week's application that “NUTS!” was meant to echo Brig. Gen. McAuliffe’s famous answer to the Germans demanding surrender at the Battle of the Bulge. 

“Applicant intended his response to demonstrate resolve, not disrespect,” Falk wrote. 

Dunn was subsequently removed from his command. 

The government argues that the U.S. military has relied on mandatory vaccinations since 1777 when George Washington inoculated the Continental Army against smallpox. While the government acknowledges that vaccination requirements may interfere with religious exercise, it says the military has a compelling interest in vaccinating its members. 

Back in January, the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s federal mandate for private workers to vaccinate or test.

While no judge signed the decision to stay the mandate from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined a concurring opinion from Justice Neil Gorsuch. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sotomayor took the rare step meanwhile of co-signing a dissent that labels Covid-19 “a menace in work settings.”

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Additional reporting by Kelsey Reichmann in Washington

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