Mask Mandates? Republican Lawmakers Unsuccessful in Supreme Court Challenge Over Mask Mandate Fines

Source: Shutterstock

The long-running debate over COVID-19 mask mandates reached the nation’s highest court when three Republican members of Congress petitioned the Supreme Court to review fines for failing to wear masks on the House floor.

In a terse ruling issued Tuesday, the Court refused to hear an appeal by Representatives Tom Massie, Ralph Norman, and Marjorie Taylor Greene seeking to overturn penalties imposed during the speakership of Nancy Pelosi. The decision leaves lower court rulings in place that the legislative branch controls its internal rules without judicial oversight.

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on Congressional Mask Mandates

The Supreme Court denied certiorari to a case concerning fines issued by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to three Republican representatives for violating mask mandates on the House floor. In May 2021, Reps. Tom Massie, Ralph Norman, and Marjorie Taylor Greene had portions of their congressional pay deducted for not wearing face masks during votes, per the rules set by Speaker Pelosi.

Source: Roll Call

The representatives argued that the fines were unjust retaliation for their votes against mask mandates and an overreach of Speaker Pelosi’s authority. However, lower courts found that the internal rules of Congress are outside the jurisdiction of federal courts.

Republican Lawmakers Protest House Mask Mandate

Representative Greene, who says she remains unvaccinated, has called the mask requirement “communist,” “tyrannical,” and “authoritarian.” She claims that “the American people have had enough and are standing up against these outrageous and unconstitutional policies.”

Source: J. Scott Applewhite

Greene has accumulated over $80,000 in fines for violating the mask mandate more than 30 times. The House Ethics Committee has announced nearly $50,000 of her fines thus far. Representative Clyde has changed his payroll withholdings to $1 per month in an apparent attempt to avoid paying the fines for his 14 violations of the mask rule, which have totaled at least $30,000.

No Help From House Leaders

Current House Republican leaders also opposed the lawmakers’ legal challenge. In a brief, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise told the Supreme Court that while they disagreed with the mask mandate rule, “this case is not about the wisdom of the rule or whether it was based on sound science.” Instead, they argued, it concerned whether the fines could be contested in court.

Source: J. Scott Applewhite

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the appeal upheld the fines on procedural grounds. The Court did not rule on the substance or merits of the House mask mandate rule itself. Rep. Massie reacted on Twitter, saying, “The SCOTUS has rejected our appeal.

The History of the House Mask Mandate

In January 2021, the House of Representatives adopted House Resolution 38, implementing a mask mandate for all members and requiring face masks to be worn in the House chamber and other areas of the U.S. Capitol building under the control of the House. The resolution stated that members would be fined for failing to comply with the mandate.

Source: T.J. Kirkpatrick

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the rule was necessary to protect members and staff from COVID-19, which had already resulted in the deaths of two members of Congress. Some Republican members objected to the mandate and refused to comply, resulting in thousands of dollars in fines.

Legal Challenges Unsuccessful

Some penalized lawmakers attempted to contest the fines in court, arguing that they did not constitute “disorderly behavior” as the House rules allow punishment. In particular, Reps. Greene, Clyde, and Thomas Massie (R-KY) filed a lawsuit against Speaker Nancy Pelosi in federal court, claiming the mask rule and resulting penalties were unconstitutional.

Source: T.J. Kirkpatrick

However, the judge expressed skepticism about their case. The House General Counsel Douglas Letter contended that issuing fines for not wearing masks fell within the chamber’s authority to govern its proceedings and discipline members.

Rationales for Defiance and Compliance

Those refusing to comply with the mandate, like Rep. Greene, called it “communist,” “tyrannical,” and “authoritarian.” In contrast, Speaker Pelosi said the rule aimed to protect legislators and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had already caused the deaths of two members of Congress. Most Republican representatives followed the mandate, though reluctantly.

Source: Nicholas Kamm

The sizable fines did not deter some lawmakers from continually flouting the mask rule, suggesting their defiance was more symbolic. However, the legal challenges were unsuccessful, affirming the House’s authority to implement rules protecting health and safety.

Legal Arguments From Republicans Against the Fines

The Republican lawmakers argued that the mask fines violated their constitutional rights. In their suit, they contended that the fines were a form of retaliation against them for acting in accordance with their constituents’ wishes rather than the Speaker’s desires.

Source: SIPA

They asserted that the Speaker had used the mandate “as a cudgel” to penalize her “political opponents.” Some Republican lawmakers accused the House and the Sergeant-at-Arms of selective enforcement of the mask mandate. For example, Representative Andrew Clyde claimed that the penalties were imposed in a “deeply troubling” and arbitrary manner.

The Supreme Court’s Decision – Why They Rejected the Appeal

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from three Republican representatives regarding fines imposed for violating mask mandates on the House floor. In a decision issued without comment, the justices rejected the lawmakers’ argument that the fines were unjustified and retaliatory.

Source: Jabin Botsford

Legal experts note that the high court typically does not review internal rules established by government bodies like Congress. The lawmakers had contended that by upholding Speaker Pelosi’s authority to impose the mask fines, the judicial system was improperly ceding power to the legislative branch.

The Broader Implications: Congressional Rules and Judicial Review

The decision by the Supreme Court to reject the appeal from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and her Republican colleagues has significant implications regarding the internal rules of Congress and the role of the judicial branch.

Source: Pew Research Center

By declining to review the fines levied against the lawmakers for violating mask rules on the House floor, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches. The internal rules of the House of Representatives are solely under the purview of Congress, not the courts. Any disputes over those rules must be resolved by Congress itself, not through lawsuits.

Congress Authority Upheld

Despite the lawmakers’ arguments, the Supreme Court has clearly indicated its unwillingness to intervene in Congress’ internal disciplinary procedures. While the mask mandate may have been controversial, the justices’ decision affirms the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.

Source: Brookings Institution

The ruling preserves Congress’ authority to enforce its own rules without judicial oversight. Though the fined legislators view the penalties as unfair, the courts have no jurisdiction in the matter. This conclusion reinforces the independence of each branch of government and maintains the integrity of House operations.

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Sally Reed

Written by Sally Reed

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