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Capitol Insider: State takes legal steps to fight vaccination mandates

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
COVID-19 Vaccinations Opposed

The Stitt Administration is increasing efforts to oppose federal COVID-19 vaccination requirements for federal contractors, members of the National Guard and large businesses in Oklahoma.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, while Governor Stitt was on a state visit to Mexico, the attorney general was suing the U.S. government over vaccination mandates. Governor Stitt clearly supports the lawsuit, which seeks injunctive relief to prevent federal contractor vaccination mandates from going into effect. What is the state of Oklahoma's argument?

Shawn Ashley: Attorney General John O'Connor argues the federal contractors vaccine mandate is unlawful because it violates a number of federal laws, such as the Federal Procurement Act and the Administrative Procedures Act and unconstitutional because it infringes on certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures.

The lawsuit states “the president has arrogated to himself powers belonging to Congress and the states and then exercised those powers contrary to religious conscience, privacy rights, bodily integrity and individual autonomy and dignity of covered contractors and their employees. In doing so, the president has violated the Constitution,” the lawsuit states, “trampled on the sovereign rights and dignity of states and acted without any authorization in, and indeed by, disobeying federal law.”

Dick Pryor: So that's what the state is saying. What are the problems with that argument?

Shawn Ashley: Well, put simply, government contractors are subcontractors who already have agreed to a long list of requirements to be awarded those contracts, and they can't pick and choose which requirements they get to follow and which they don't. The federal government indirectly then, is the employer and gets to set the terms of employment. They set job qualifications and safety considerations. All the rules and regulations that we follow every day in our own jobs. I think it's important to note, too, that the state is bringing this lawsuit on its own behalf. Oklahoma has a significant number of federal contractors, particularly in the aerospace and defense industries, but it did not file the suit on behalf of any specific federal contractor in the state. And the lawsuit essentially is trying to tell the federal government how to do business with companies in the state of Oklahoma.

Dick Pryor: Are more legal challenges coming?

Shawn Ashley: It certainly seems that way. On Friday morning, O'Connor joined six other attorneys general in a petition before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit challenging the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for private sector employees, those in companies with 100 or more workers. Those rules were released earlier in the week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Governor Stitt has written a letter to the Secretary of Defense expressing opposition to the military's requirement that National Guard members, along with other military personnel, be vaccinated and that too could grow into a lawsuit. Stitt said he is concerned about the 800 guardsmen, approximately 10 percent of the total force, who have not been vaccinated. He warned the state could face difficulty in a natural disaster or other event if it loses those guardsmen.

Dick Pryor: Of course, the guardsmen could just get vaccinated.

Shawn Ashley: That's correct. And in fact, on the National Guard website for the state of Oklahoma, they are promoting that individuals get vaccinated, but at the same time recognizing that it's up to the choice of the individual, whether they do or do not.

Dick Pryor: The state is spending a lot of time and resources on these vaccination challenges. What is this all about?

Shawn Ashley: For years, if you've been watching the state Legislature, you've heard certain lawmakers complain about overreach by the federal government and its infringement on state rights, the Tenth Amendment, particularly during the Obama and now during the Biden administrations. So really, what we have here is a long simmering concern. During the 2021 regular session, some teeth was put into those complaints, as Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat pointed out when lawmakers passed and Governor Stitt signed House Bill 1236. That bill created the State Reserve Powers Protection Unit within the Attorney General's Office, and it's allocating $10 million per fiscal year to that unit through fiscal year 2026. House Speaker Charles McCall on Thursday, after O'Connor announced that he was filing the lawsuit challenging the federal contractor mandate, indicated that was exactly what they were hoping for when they passed that piece of legislation

Dick Pryor: We mentioned earlier, the governor spent three days in Mexico and characterized it as a successful trip. What did he do and what result does he expect?

Shawn Ashley: Stitt met there with a variety of business leaders, including Oklahoma companies currently doing business in Mexico and Mexico-based firms that do business in Oklahoma. He also met with U.S. and Mexico officials to discuss plans to bring a future Mexican consulate to Oklahoma City, and he and Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Scott Mueller visited one of Mexico's leading universities to discuss workforce development. After returning home Thursday, Stitt said “the purpose of this trip was to open doors and build bridges for Oklahoma companies to do business in Mexico and encourage Mexican companies to invest in Oklahoma.” He added, “he was confident the relationships built on this trip will pay dividends for Oklahoma into the future.” According to the governor's office, Stitt is just the third Oklahoma governor to make a state visit to Mexico. The first was Governor Johnston Murray back in 1954 and Governor David Walters did so in 1994.

Dick Pryor: House and Senate redistricting committees released their proposed congressional district map and immediately drew fire for expanding District Five into Lincoln, Logan and Canadian counties and the expansive District Three into South Oklahoma City. What's the committee's rationale?

Shawn Ashley: Ryan Martinez and Lonnie Paxton, chairs of the House and Senate redistricting committees, said the changes resulted largely from public input. Canadian Lincoln and Logan counties see themselves as part of the larger Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Map makers choices are further limited by the public's desire for Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill to be part of CD4. That means more than 180,000 Oklahoma County residents that are currently in CD5 had to be moved into CD3, but that means residents of the Plaza District, Valley Brook and all the way to Southeast 89th and Sooner Road will be in the same congressional district as Weatherford, Hollis, Clinton, Guymon, Pawhuska and Black Mesa State Park.

Dick Pryor: That's a lot of territory and that's a lot to digest, but the Legislature will be talking about that at the special session beginning November 15th. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: We'd like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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