SJC sides with sheriffs in COVID testing case

When the Supreme Judicial Court justices heard a case about whether sheriffs needed to do more COVID testing in jails, they sounded skeptical, questioning why more screening was necessary when vaccines were readily available.

This week, the SJC confirmed that view, deciding unanimously that the county jails do not need to implement regular testing of asymptomatic prisoners.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had sued the state’s 13 sheriffs, seeking to require the jails to conduct weekly COVID surveillance testing of all inmates. Their argument was that the CDC recommends regular testing for correctional facilities, so houses of correction are exhibiting “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ health by not providing it.

The court, however, in a 42-page decision written by Justice Elspeth Cypher, rejected that argument. The court found that the CDC guidelines are “mere recommendations, not mandates.” The jails are fulfilling their duty to inmates through the COVID precautions they are taking: testing people with symptoms; isolating sick individuals; enhancing hygiene; and most significantly, offering the COVID vaccine to all inmates and staff.

“Although we continue to encourage the defendants to employ every reasonably available mechanism to mitigate the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cypher wrote, “we conclude that we are without authority to intervene in the defendants’ discretionary exercise of authority… where the defendants’ over-all efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in their houses of correction do not run afoul of Federal or State constitutional minimum requirements.”  

The defense lawyers had also argued that the jails should be doing more to reduce their prison populations and that two county jails – in Bristol and Essex counties – need to provide better videoconferencing for attorneys to meet with their incarcerated clients. The court rejected both those arguments as well.

One issue hanging over multiple cases related to COVID precautions in correctional facilities is Gov. Charlie Baker’s mandate requiring all executive branch officers to get the COVID vaccine. In another case before the SJC regarding whether the Department of Correction is doing enough to reduce the state prison population, the mandate came up in oral arguments, with attorneys for the state arguing that high vaccination rates make it easier to show that the state has met its burden of caring for inmates’ health without additional efforts like releasing prisoners.

The union representing correction officers this week filed a lawsuit in federal court to delay Baker’s mandate, saying it interferes with their right to “decline unwanted medical treatment.”

A similar effort by state police troopers to delay the mandate was rejected by a state judge.

The SJC ruling in the testing case – which involves county, not state, facilities and was argued before Baker imposed the vaccine mandate – did not discuss vaccine uptake rates other than mentioning how many staff and prisoners have been vaccinated. It also noted that, at the time the case was argued, vaccine uptake was voluntary. But in looking at COVID-related cases going forward, particularly the case over population reduction, the top state justices will almost certainly be keeping an eye on how the federal court handles the vaccine mandate.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Moving on: Citing bills filed on Beacon Hill that would prohibit Massachusetts gun companies from manufacturing firearms that can’t be sold in the state, Smith & Wesson says it is moving its headquarters from Springfield to Maryville, Tennessee. The move will affect “upwards” of 750 jobs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Missouri, though the company said it expects to keep more than 1,000 employees in Massachusetts, which has been its home since its 1852 incorporation. 

Smith & Wesson president and CEO Mark Smith said the proposed legislation would prohibit the manufacture of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines covered under the state’s existing ban on their purchase and possession. “While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60 percent of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.” Read more.

Election package: Citing an “un-American darkness” spreading across the United States, Senate President Karen Spilka and other Senate leaders call for passage of an election reform package that includes same-day voter registration, permanent voting by mail, expanded early voting, and provisions to make it easier for incarcerated people to vote to cast their ballots. Read more.

Salem wind: In the jockeying for power purchase contracts, Vineyard Wind strikes a deal with Salem that would make the North Shore port a base of operations if the offshore wind developer is selected by the state and its utilities. The rival bidder, Mayflower Wind, is sprinkling its operations in Fall River and Somerset’s Brayton Point. Read more.

OPINION

No more Band-Aids: Six public health leaders — Ruth Mori, Carlene Pavlos, Sigalle Reiss, Cheryl Sbarra, Diane Chalifoux-Judge, and Sharon Hart — say the state should dedicate 5 percent of ARPA funding to fix the public health system. Read more.

Fix Boston schools: Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute say it’s time for bolder action to improve Boston’s schools. They say elected and appointed school committees have failed the system over the years and suggest that perhaps the state education department should appoint the panel’s members. Read more

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Saugus officials, like those in Revere, oppose efforts to relocate homeless people from the Mass and Cass area of Boston to a hotel on the Revere-Saugus line. (Daily Item)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

At Massachusetts General Hospital, two to three nurses a day face assaults from patients. (WBUR)

Younger adults are driving the latest surge in COVID cases. (Gloucester Daily Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

House Democrats delayed a vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill as leaders continued to try to wrangle enough votes from liberal members who want to tie their support of the bill to assurances that Congress will pass a separate $3.5 trillion bill aimed at social service and environmental issues. (Washington Post

The Senate Judiciary Committee splits down the middle on the nomination of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins to be US attorney for Massachusetts. Republicans criticize Rollins for her policy of not prosecuting individuals for low-level crimes. (WBUR)

ELECTIONS

During an interview on Boston Public Radio, Annissa Essaibi George ramps up her criticism of Michaell Wu. (GBH) Essaibi George creates a stir with comments in the interview suggesting it’s “relevant” that Wu was raised in Chicago, while she’s a native Bostonian. (Boston Globe

US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who didn’t back anyone in the five-way mayoral preliminary contest, endorses Wu in the Boston mayoral final. (Boston Globe)

Responding to a recent column by the Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi headlined, “Do George Regan and friends help or hurt Annissa Essaibi George,” about the super PAC the PR honcho is involved with along with Trump-supporter New Balance chairman Jim Davis, Regan pens a lengthy letter to the editor — in the Boston Herald

Sen. Adams Hinds of Pittsfield is reportedly close to making a decision about a run for statewide office, possibly lieutenant governor. (Berkshire Eagle)

EDUCATION

Many Central Massachusetts colleges stopped requiring standardized tests for admission even before the pandemic. (Telegram & Gazette)

Last week, Massachusetts schools reported 2,054 students and 345 staff who had COVID-19. (MassLive)

TRANSPORTATION

The Louisiana family that suffered multiple fractures and other injuries in the escalator malfunction this week at Back Bay Station is suing the MBTA and the contractor charged with maintaining the escalator. (Boston Globe) A coalition of advocacy groups called on the state to increase safety on the T and funding for the agency in the wake of a spate of recent accidents. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A woman who was raped at a UMass fraternity recounts her difficult journey to have her assailant punished, and the myriad ways the system failed to protect her. (MassLive)

A former Massachusetts State Police trooper is indicted for kicking a handcuffed suspect in the head. (Associated Press)

Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings is retiring. (Cape Cod Times)

MEDIA

Chicago Public Media, the home of NPR station WBEZ, says it has signed a letter of intent to acquire the city’s second-largest newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

PASSINGS

North Shore newspaper publisher Bill Wasserman, the founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, dies at 94. (Media Nation)