Military Vaccine Mandate Lawsuit Filed by 16 Troops, Backed by Troubled Lawyers

October 20, 2021Maggie BenZvi
military vaccine mandate lawsuit

More than a dozen military members have sued the Pentagon in a military vaccine mandate lawsuit. Gavel photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua, Virus image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

More than a dozen service members from all branches of the military filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and its leaders, seeking an end to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The suit also asks a federal court to issue a nationwide ban on the use of the vaccines currently available to the general public, claiming their authorizations were rushed.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 6, 16 military members said they each face “dishonorable discharge, the loss of their constitutional rights, and potential imprisonment” for refusing to obey the military’s vaccine mandate.

All 16 service members joined the lawsuit anonymously, listing in the filing only their currently assigned bases and statuses in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or reserve components. The group includes 14 men and two women.

The first military COVID-19 vaccine mandate will take effect in November. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rachelanne Woodward.

The military members are represented in the suit by lawyers from Defending the Republic, a legal fundraising group affiliated with several lawyers who attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election by filing a series of lawsuits that judges later said were “frivolous.” The organization’s founder and at least one lawyer who filed the vaccine mandate suit were sanctioned over election lawsuits by a federal judge. 

“Through the filing of this lawsuit, we make clear that these service members — those who serve their country with honor — are not the property of the US government, and the Constitution does not allow them to be treated as such,” a Defending the Republic press release reads.

The lawsuit was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Florida, where most of the military members are stationed or claim a hometown. The named defendants are Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, acting Commissioner of the Federal Drug Administration Janet Woodcock, and the individual secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Currently, legal orders issued by each branch of the military require all active-duty service members to be fully vaccinated by deadlines set by each service. The active-duty deadlines are Nov. 2 for the Air Force and Space Force, Nov. 28 for the Marine Corps and Navy, and Dec. 15 for the Army.

military vaccine mandate lawsuit
Members joining the military vaccine mandate lawsuit said they could face courts-martial should they refuse to comply with the mandate. US Navy photo by Lt. Ayana Pitterson.

The initial mandate order from Austin — which the lawsuit seeks to overturn — requires punishments for failure to comply with the deadlines, including prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which could involve dishonorable discharge and imprisonment.

“The [Department of Defense] mandate violates due process and imposes unconstitutional conditions by forcing Plaintiffs to choose between violation of their constitutional rights or facing life-altering punishments,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers write in the court filing.

The lawsuit initially asked for a national restraining order on the enforcement of the mandate. However, in a teleconference on Oct. 8 with lawyers for the defense, the plaintiffs’ lawyers apparently agreed to reduce the scope of the request so that a restraining order might only apply to the specific plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Each of the military members lists separate reasons for seeking legal relief from the vaccine mandate.

One woman described herself under the category of a “woman of childbearing potential” and expressed fear of long-term effects from the vaccine. Others in the suit said they were seeking, or have been denied, medical or religious exemptions through their chains of command. Several of the plaintiffs claimed to have previously documented COVID-19 infections which, they said, should exempt them from the mandate based on antibodies developed by their immune system.

military vaccine mandate lawsuit
US Navy Seaman Dillon Bothwell, a hospital corpsman with US Naval Hospital Okinawa, prepares the COVID-19 vaccination to be administered on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 18, 2020. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Karis Mattingly.

In an Oct. 12 filing, attorneys for the Department of Justice said the military members had wasted too much time since the August mandate announcement by waiting to file the suit until October.

“Plaintiffs’ delay in bringing this suit cannot be a reason to rush briefing,” government attorneys wrote, indicating they would file a response within 14 days.

The Department of Defense did not respond to Coffee or Die Magazine’s request for comment on the lawsuit but told Northwest Florida Daily News last week that it would not comment on pending litigation. However, during the preliminary teleconference on Oct. 8, Justice Department lawyer Andrew Carmichael told Judge Winsor, “There is case law out there that says separation from the military is not irreparable harm.”

Defending the Republic also did not respond to a request for comment.

Though the military vaccine mandate lawsuit plaintiffs are anonymous, their lawyers are far from it.

Sidney Powell
Attorney Sidney Powell’s legal nonprofit, Defending the Republic, was a driving force behind many lawsuits that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Photo from LinkedIn.

Defending the Republic is run by Sidney Powell, who has been sanctioned or is under investigation in at least two states for her work to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Of the three Defending the Republic lawyers listed on the vaccine mandate suit, at least two have direct ties to those failed Powell lawsuits, and one was sanctioned along with Powell.

Attorney Brandon Johnson, who is listed as the counsel in Washington, DC, for the vaccine mandate lawsuit, was sanctioned by US District Judge Linda Parker for his work with Powell on several election-related lawsuits that Parker dismissed as “frivolous.” Parker went further, calling Johnson and Powell’s work to overturn the election a profound abuse” of the court system and initiating disciplinary action against both with their home states’ legal authorities.

Another lawyer listed as counsel for Defending the Republic, Ibrahim Reyes, has been co-counsel on several legal actions with former Donald Trump attorney Lin Wood. Wood was also named specifically in Parker’s rebuke and is now facing disbarment in Georgia.

This story was updated at 12:19 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2021, to reflect that troops who violate the vaccine mandate might face discipline under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ.

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Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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