A federal judge will allow Maine newspapers to challenge the anonymity of nine plaintiffs who sued the state over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

The unnamed health care workers filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Portland in August. They want an exemption to the mandate for religious reasons, which is not currently allowed under the state’s mandate for employees of hospitals, nursing homes and some other medical providers.

The court initially allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with their case under pseudonyms. But the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November to intervene in the case, with the eventual goal of revealing the names of the plaintiffs. U.S. District Judge Jon Levy granted that motion Thursday, so the newspapers will be able to move forward with their challenge.

“This is a matter of intense public interest, and the public has the right to know who is challenging the state’s handling of a public health crisis,” said Steve Greenlee, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “Our system of justice was designed to be open and transparent, and there’s no compelling reason for anonymity in this case.”

The parties will next submit written briefs on whether the nine plaintiffs should be allowed to remain “Jane Does 1-6” and “John Does 1-3.” In his order, Levy did not indicate whether he would reverse his earlier ruling and require the plaintiffs to reveal themselves. But he said the newspapers should be allowed to intervene in the case in part because they represent a unique interest.

“Because the Media Intervenors seek to vindicate their and the public’s common law and First Amendment rights of access to judicial proceedings, and that interest is not currently represented by any of the parties, this consideration weighs in favor of granting, not denying, intervention,” Levy wrote.

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Levy previously ruled that the state did not have to offer a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court has twice denied the plaintiffs’ requests for emergency relief from the mandate. The nation’s highest court is still considering whether to hear oral arguments on the underlying case. In the meantime, the plaintiffs have asked Levy to put the case on pause in the District Court.

The newspapers argued that using pseudonyms violates the Constitution because it denies the media and the public access to basic information that is guaranteed under the First Amendment. They also argued that allowing the plaintiffs to remain anonymous could force the court to take other steps to curtail access, such as closing the courtroom during their testimony.

“Allowing civil litigants to proceed under pseudonyms withholds valuable information from the press and the public about pending litigation and functions as a form of closure of court proceedings and records,” the motion to intervene said.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by the conservative firm Liberty Counsel, opposed that motion. They argued that media outlets and the public have had appropriate access to hearings and documents in the case, and that the judge should hold to his original ruling that allowed pseudonyms in the preliminary stage of the case.

“Shielding Plaintiffs’ identities from the public is necessary to protect their safety and the personal nature of their medical and religious decisions,” their motion said.

A representative for Liberty Counsel did not respond Thursday to an email seeking the group’s response to the judge’s decision.

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The lawsuit named as defendants state officials and health care providers, and those parties took no position on the motion to intervene. A spokeswoman said the Maine Attorney General’s Office did not have any comment on the judge’s decision and would not say what position the state will take on the question in the future.

Joining the newspapers’ challenge as co-counsel is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that protects First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.

“We’re obviously pleased with the court’s order permitting us to intervene,” said Katie Townsend, the group’s legal director. “It’s consistent with case law making clear that intervention should be allowed in situations where members of the news media and the public are challenging secrecy in litigation, which is what we’re doing here.”

The state began enforcing the mandate Oct. 29. Major hospital networks reported at the time that most of their workers opted to get the vaccine and keep their jobs.


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