Legal experts are divided over whether two New York judges overstepped their authority when they recently ordered two defendants to get vaccinated against COVID-19, The New York Times reports.
Bronx County Judge Jeffrey Zimmerman ordered a defendant pleading guilty to multiple minor crimes to get vaccinated, while Manhattan federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff ordered a woman seeking bail before trial to get vaccinated. Neither defendant objected, according to the Times, but legal experts interviewed by the newspaper disagreed over whether the judges had the legal authority to make the orders.
Zimmerman told the defendant, William Gregory, that getting vaccinated represented a form of rehabilitation, arguing that the crimes he had been accused of, including drug possession and shoplifting, demonstrated that he placed his own interests ahead of others.
Rakoff made getting vaccinated a condition for the release of defendant Elouisa Pimental, who was accused of conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. He argued that it was his responsibility to determine if the person seeking release presented a danger to the community, and said that the unvaccinated have an “enhanced risk of infecting other, innocent people and even potentially causing their deaths.”
New York University School of Law professor Stephen Gillers said that Rakoff most likely has a solid base for his order as long as Pimental does not object to receiving the vaccine on health or “legitimate religious objections,” saying, “those aside, I think that this requirement fits within the broader category of the judge’s responsibility for the safety of individuals or the public generally.”
However, Fordham University School of Law professor Cheryl Bader said that the judge has a “potential hole in the underlying logic,” since the danger of spreading COVID-19 was not connected to the crime Pimental was accused of. The Times notes that judges are given broad discretion when it comes to determining restrictions for people accused of crimes.
New York Law School professor Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times that restrictions imposed by judges can be reversed by the court, but a lawyer would have to show that the judge abused their authority. She noted that Zimmerman’s framing the order as part of the defendant’s personal improvement “made it seem to me like an abuse of discretion.”
She added, “that the judge has this guy in his power and he can impose whatever hobbyhorse is important to him.”
Fordham Law professor Bruce Green disagreed, saying that he didn’t think the judge’s order was an “incredible intrusion into someone’s bodily integrity.”
“It’s actually doing the defendant a favor because it’s keeping them safe and it’s doing the community a favor by making sure this person’s less likely to transmit the virus,” he said.
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