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News brief: vaccine-or-test ruling, Jan. 6 charges, Novak Djokovic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered two key decisions yesterday on vaccine rules.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In short, a big vaccine rule is OK, but an even bigger rule is not. One judgment by the court blocks the vaccine-or-test mandate for 84 million workers at large private companies; the other upholds a vaccine rule for 10 million health care workers.

MARTIN: NPR's labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu is here with us this morning. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: So these are two big decisions. Fill us in. What did the court have to say?

HSU: Well, let me start with the larger one, the one issued by OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency. The court voted 6-3 to block it, as you might expect, along ideological lines. The six conservative justices found that OSHA did not have the authority to do something so sweeping, requiring 84 million people to get vaccinated or tested weekly. They sided with the challengers, who had argued that COVID is not a danger specific to the workplace. You know, after all, people can get exposed to the virus wherever they go, not just while on the job. And they said - the justices said OSHA can regulate occupational hazards, but not public health more broadly without clear authorization from Congress. The three liberal justices dissented, saying the court's decision hinders the federal government's ability to deal with the very serious threat that the coronavirus still poses to workers.

MARTIN: Right. This is the challenge of a public health crisis. So what's the reaction been from companies thus far?

HSU: Well, the National Federation of Independent Business called the decision welcome relief for companies that are still trying to dig out from under the pandemic. At the court last week, they argued the rule would cost businesses billions of dollars, and I think there's relief even among companies that didn't necessarily object to this rule. I was at MOM's Organic Market earlier this week. It's a small grocery chain headquartered in Maryland. And Jon Croft, the chief culture officer, knew this ruling was coming, but he wasn't focused on it because, you know, they've got so many other pressing issues, a lot of workers out with omicron at the moment and ongoing problems with the supply chain.

JON CROFT: There's so much going on and there are so many other things to do, we just don't have the bandwidth to be going down rabbit holes that we might not even have to go down.

HSU: Like figuring out how unvaccinated workers were going to get tested every week. And now he doesn't need to.

MARTIN: Right. OK, so what about the case that the Biden administration won? This is the vaccine mandate for health care workers. Why is this different?

HSU: Right. In that case, two of the conservative justices, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, sided with the three liberals. They found the government did have the authority to act, that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can impose conditions on health care employers who get funding through Medicare and Medicaid, and most of them do. And they point out that vaccine requirements are actually a common feature in health care for things such as measles and hepatitis B.

MARTIN: So the challengers to this rule had argued that health care workers would quit over this, and that could lead to an even worse staffing crisis. Is that likely to happen?

HSU: Not necessarily. First of all, health care workers have some time before they have to be fully vaccinated. And we've seen high vaccination rates in hospitals that have their own vaccine mandates. Last night, I did check in with Ted LeNeave. He's the CEO of Accura Healthcare, which runs nursing homes in the Midwest. He had been worried about a mass exodus, but over the last few months, he's seen the vaccination rate among his employees go up from about 60% to now just over 70%. And he thinks it will go up further now that the court has ruled. He sent this blast to all his employees yesterday.

TED LENEAVE: Don't panic. Don't leave. You know, if you're not vaccinated, we will have conversations with you about the vaccine, the need for the vaccine, why it's important, why it is safe.

HSU: And he told them they can also apply for exemptions, religious or medical.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Hsu. Andrea, thank you.

HSU: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The founder of the far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers was arrested yesterday on charges connected to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

INSKEEP: Stewart Rhodes was charged with 10 other individuals. Prosecutors say they conspired to disrupt the democratic transfer of power. Court papers describe their alleged plot. Rhodes and other Oath Keepers coordinated travel, equipment and tactical gear and also amassed firearms in the lead-up to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

MARTIN: We've got NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas with us this morning. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Tell us more about Stewart Rhodes and the charges against him.

LUCAS: Well, Rhodes is a former Army paratrooper and a graduate of Yale Law School. He founded the Oath Keepers more than a decade ago, and it's a loose-knit militia group that tries to recruit former military folks in particular. In Rhodes' view, the group defends Americans from a tyrannical government. In the view of researchers and watchdogs, though, this group is, in essence, just a far-right extremist group. As for this indictment, Rhodes faces several charges, but, really, the big one here that stands out is seditious conspiracy. It's a charge that's rarely used, but it is definitely a serious one. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. We've known for a long time that prosecutors were looking at potentially using this charge in relation to January 6. But this is the first time that they've actually brought it in the Capitol riot investigation, and they've brought it against Stewart Rhodes.

MARTIN: Not just him, though - right? - 10 other people as well.

LUCAS: That's right. That's right. There are 11 defendants charged in this indictment with seditious conspiracy and other crimes. Nine of these people were already facing charges in connection with January 6. They're part of a large case that the Justice Department brought last year against around 20 Oath Keepers or people with ties to the group. Rhodes and one other defendant are the only ones who hadn't previously been charged. An interesting thing here is that we've known for a long time that prosecutors were scrutinizing Rhodes, taking a close look at him. He even publicly said he expected to be arrested, although he has maintained the whole time that he's done nothing wrong.

MARTIN: So why the sedition charge? I mean, what exactly is the Justice Department saying Rhodes and the others did?

LUCAS: So prosecutors say that Rhodes and the others conspired to stop by force the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden. The indictment includes one message Rhodes sent right after Trump's election loss. In that message, Rhodes says to other Oath Keepers, quote, "we aren't getting through this without a civil war. It's too late for that." And prosecutors say Rhodes also started to organize. He and other defendants recruited members to participate in trainings. They planned to travel to Washington, D.C., for January 6. They organized into teams. They brought paramilitary gear to D.C. Some of them even brought weapons and stashed them at a hotel across the river in Virginia in case things downtown got messy on January 6. And on the day itself, several suspected Oath Keepers in military formation entered the Capitol. There's no evidence that Rhodes did, although he was on Capitol grounds. Court papers say that on January 6, Rhodes was communicating with the Oath Keepers in a chat group. So his role was more of a leadership and coordinating one.

MARTIN: So hundreds of people have been charged so far in the Capitol riot investigation. What are the broader implications of this case against Rhodes?

LUCAS: So, right, more than 700 people have been arrested so far in this investigation; a lot of them face misdemeanor charges; hundreds have been charged with assaulting police or obstruction; a couple dozen face conspiracy charges. But this new case against Rhodes and other Oath Keepers is the first, as I said, to charge seditious conspiracy. That's important because of the charge, but also because of who's involved here, a big anti-government militia group and its leader. So this is the - it's the most serious case so far to come out of this January 6 investigation. As for what happens next, Rhodes is scheduled to appear this afternoon in federal court in Texas. And, of course, we'll be keeping an eye on that.

MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now to tennis. Australia's immigration minister has revoked tennis star Novak Djokovic's visa again.

INSKEEP: Yeah. If you're like me, you're thinking, didn't that already happen? And you would be right. Because days ago, Australian border officials revoked his visa when he arrived to play at the Australian Open. Djokovic is not vaccinated for coronavirus, which Australia requires travelers to be. Then a judge overruled the Australian border officials and let Djokovic stay. Now, another official has re-revoked the visa, and the player faces possible deportation.

MARTIN: You got all that? OK. So for more, we are joined by journalist Elizabeth Kulas. She's on the line from Melbourne. She's been covering it all. Elizabeth, start off by telling us what the immigration minister said about his decision to revoke the visa.

ELIZABETH KULAS: Yeah, this decision came in around 6 p.m. this evening. I think almost everybody in Australia thought it wasn't going to happen during this work week, and they dropped it just after 6 p.m. And in a statement, the minister said he was cancelling the visa on health and good order grounds and on the basis that it was in the public interest. He said he'd taken on board all kinds of information that had been provided to him by the Department of Home Affairs, Border Force, who had initially detained Djokovic and Djokovic and his team as well. And this likely relates to the fact that in the last few days, it's surfaced that Djokovic's original visa application made to enter the country contained some false information, specifically a claim that he hadn't travelled internationally in the last two weeks leading up to his arrival into Australia. And social media posts showed that he'd been in Spain.

MARTIN: So we've got the Australian Open starting Monday.

KULAS: Yes.

MARTIN: Is Djokovic going to play?

KULAS: At this point, no. But as we speak, a directions hearing is taking place right now. It's just after 9 p.m. on a Friday night, but that's happening as we speak. We're not likely to get a resolution on this tonight but probably get some very clear indications of next steps. In the days leading up to today's announcement, Djokovic's team had said he would fight it if the minister had stepped in. So it looks like it will continue as a legal situation over the weekend. But in the meantime, Djokovic has been asked to present for an interview with immigration officials tomorrow.

MARTIN: Oh, my gosh, high drama. So Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, right? Ninety-two percent of people over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated. How are people there talking about this case?

KULAS: It's quite hard to get a public reading on this. I think it's - the prime minister put out a statement this afternoon saying Australians had made sacrifices during the pandemic and that they could rightly expect that the result of that would be that those sacrifices were protected. I think there is a segment of the population that's following that line. I think there's also a large group of people who think, let's put this to the side for now and play on. So it is hard to tell, but Djokovic will, it looks like, appeal the decision and see if he can either get a bridging visa and remain to play on Monday.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Kulas, reporter talking to us from Melbourne, she's been covering this, thank you.

KULAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.