National Roundup

Vaccine litigation lingers after lifting of military mandate

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Federal appeals court judges closely questioned a Biden administration attorney Monday on the consequences military personnel might face for refusing COVID-19 vaccinations, even though Biden’s vaccine mandate for military personnel has been rescinded.

Lawyers for a group of Navy SEALS and other Navy personnel who refuse to be vaccinated for religious reasons told a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that federal court injunctions against the mandate are still needed, in part because decisions on deployments and assignments can still be made based on vaccination status.

“Is there any assurance on the record, that there will be no deployment decisions based on vaccination?” Judge James Ho, one of three judges hearing the case asked Department of Justice lawyer Casen Ross.

Ross said such questions were speculative and not at issue in the case before the court. Ho and Judge Kyle Duncan noted that the administration had only reluctantly ended the military mandate after December congressional action, but Ross assured the panel that there are no plans to bring back the requirement.

“Given the prevailing public health guidelines and the state of the virus, there is currently no intention to require universal vaccination of all service members,” Ross said.

The Pentagon formally dropped the requirement in January following a December vote in Congress to end the mandate. However, vaccine opponents note that commanders can still make decisions on how and whether to deploy unvaccinated troops, under a memo signed last month by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Military leaders have long argued that to maintain unit health and troop readiness, troops have for decades been required to get as many as 17 vaccines, particularly those who are deploying overseas.

Attorneys for the unvaccinated Navy personnel argued in briefs to the 5th Circuit that Austin’s memo and other Defense Department actions show that the Navy still intends to treat unvaccinated personnel “like second-class citizens because of their religious beliefs.”

Government lawyers argue the policy is in line with “well-established principles of judicial noninterference with core military decision making,” in their briefs.

The Navy SEALS filed their lawsuit in November of 2021, describing what they saw as a cumbersome 50-step process to obtain religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine. Their lawyers have called a “sham” with applications being “categorically denied.”

The Defense Department denied the process was onerous and said the Navy has a compelling interest in requiring vaccinations for personnel who often operate for long periods in “confined spaces that are ripe breeding grounds for respiratory illnesses.”

On Monday, Heather Hacker, an attorney for the Navy personnel, said the situation could be seen as worse now for them now that the older mandate policy has been rescinded, because current policy does not provide for a sailor’s religious objections to the vaccine to be considered when deployment or assignment decisions are made.

“We’re going from a 50-step process to a zero-step process?” Duncan asked.

“Exactly, your honor,” Hacker replied.

In January of last year, a federal judge in Texas barred the Navy from taking any action against the Navy plaintiffs for being unvaccinated. A 5th Circuit panel rejected the Biden administration’s request to block the judge’s order.

But the administration won at least a temporary, partial victory last March when the Supreme Court approved a “partial stay.” The order allowed the Navy to consider the sailors’ vaccination status in making decisions on deployment, assignment and other operational issues while the case plays out.

There was no indication when the judges would rule. Monday’s arguments were heard by Duncan and Ho, both nominated to the 5th Circuit by President Donald Trump, and James Graves, a nominee of President Barack Obama.


Mass shooting suspect killed during long police pursuit

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) — A man suspected in a mass shooting in central Florida last month was fatally shot by a police officer following a long chase and a carjacking, authorities said.

The car driven by Alex Greene, 21, eventually crashed into a business in Winter Haven. That’s a short distance from Lakeland, where 11 people were injured in the Jan. 30 shooting, Lakeland Police Chief Sammy Taylor said.

“We are very confident he was in fact involved; to what extent we don’t know yet,” Taylor said.

Taylor said detectives had hoped to bring Greene in on an outstanding burglary warrant to talk to him about the shooting on Jan. 30 in a neighborhood near downtown Lakeland, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Tampa.

As investigators from the Lakeland Police Department, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted surveillance, Greene got into a pickup truck and started to drive away, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said during a news conference.

Lakeland police went in pursuit along a heavily traveled road.

Police Capt. Eric Harper was driving an unmarked vehicle and tried to stop Greene “so that we don’t have this pursuit on a very busy road,” Judd said.

He did a successful pit maneuver, and Greene got out of the vehicle and started running into traffic.

“Why he and the captain weren’t run over is just the grace of God, because traffic was all over the place,” Judd said.

When Greene realized he couldn’t get away, he ran toward a restaurant where a woman was standing outside her car with the doors open, Judd said. The woman saw Greene, slammed the passenger door and tried to shut the driver’s side door.

Greene pushed the woman away and got into the car, Judd said. Harper approached with his gun drawn.

“The suspect takes off in her car, drives toward Capt. Harper, who shoots six times,” Judd said. The car continues down a road, weaves through flower beds and crashes into a building.”

Law enforcement officials pulled Greene from the car and started performing CPR. He was taken to a hospital, where he was declared dead.

“No one else was injured in the pursuit, which we are all grateful for,” Judd said.

Greene had 10 previous felony charges, including fleeing to elude law enforcement, battery on a law enforcement officer, possession of weapons and resisting arrest, Judd said. He had an outstanding warrant for burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary.

An investigation into the shooting is being handled by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the state attorney’s office.

Two people were critically injured in the Jan. 30 shooting, while the wounds of the other eight victims weren’t considered life-threatening. The victims were men ages 20 to 35, police said.

A vehicle drove through the neighborhood that afternoon, and suspects opened fire from all four car windows, police said. Officials did not provide details about any other suspects in the shooting.

Officials said they believe the shooting was a “targeted attack.”