The constitutionality of various quarantine orders is a common question. This is understandable as some people try to protect their families from life-threatening disease, while others try to work to feed their families.
Whether government quarantine, mask-usage or vaccination orders are constitutional is a question answered by the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago in a case called Jacobson v. Massachusetts.
In the early 1900s, a city faced a serious smallpox outbreak. Then, as now, there was a great deal of skepticism about the safety (and even the effectiveness) of vaccines, including for smallpox. However, at that time, many medical professionals felt that the value of vaccines likely outweighed the risk of vaccines. Therefore, the city passed a law that required every adult to be vaccinated against smallpox, with the penalty for non-compliance being a fine of $5.
Of course, one of the city’s residents refused the vaccine and the fine, claiming mandatory vaccinations were unconstitutional. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In its decision in Jacobson, the Supreme Court likened a medical crisis like smallpox to a military invasion by a foreign country. In that context, the court stated that the “liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances wholly freed from restraint.”
The Supreme Court identified many recognized pros and cons of vaccines, but the court ultimately concluded that whether vaccines were the best (or even an effective) method to combat measles was not in its power to decide. Specifically, the court wrote “there is scarcely any belief that is accepted by everyone.” However, there was enough medical opinion of vaccine effectiveness that vaccines could be mandated by legislatures like that city’s governing council.
In other words, the court stated vaccines very well may later be found to be unsafe/ineffective, but sufficient information analyzed by elected officials at the time made it reasonable to mandate vaccines to combat smallpox in 1905.
The court’s only constitutional exception to the city’s mandatory vaccination law was narrow. If it could be proved that the vaccine would seriously impair the health of or kill a specific person to whom the vaccine was to be given, that specific person may be excepted from the vaccination order.
Further, the court ruled that an apparently healthy person arriving from a disease-infested environment can be quarantined against his or her will until all danger of disease transmission has “disappeared.” Faced with our current circumstances, the quarantine orders issued by our state government are clearly constitutional because we know that people who appear to be healthy can still spread COVID-19.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s position is that some limits on liberty actually protect liberty overall. Otherwise stated by the Supreme Court, even “liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one’s own will. It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others.”
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.