Public Health Laws Weakened After COVID-19

MM Mello, WE Parmet. NEJM 2021; 385: 1153-5. Open Access: Public Health Law after Covid-19 This commentary describes changes in public health law as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key points:

  • “More than 1000 suits challenged orders shuttering businesses, banning indoor worship services, restricting travel, and mandating mask wearing.”
  • “In 1905 in Jacobson v Massachusetts, the Supreme Court upheld a vaccination mandate…Judicial review, the Court found is limited to …’arbitrary and oppressive in particular cases”
  • “Most courts..have …granted considerable deference to health officials…Courts have been more receptive, however, to challenges relating to religious liberty and the scope of executive authority.”
  • “The court in an unsigned opinion ruled that the CDC had overstepped its authority [with an eviction ban] under the Public Health Service Act (PHSA)…Congress…must pass legislation to impose one or to clarify that the CDC may impose one.”
  • “The decisions with regard to free exercise of religion suggest that health orders will face strict scrutiny if they regulate religious practices more strictly than any secular activity that courts deem similar.”

My take: This article makes clear that “while emergencies can lead to abuses of authority, …in their [Courts] zeal to protect religious liberty and constrain executive action, courts may be leaving officials with fewer tools to fight Covid-19 and the next pandemic.”

Related blog post: Supreme Court Justices “Play a Deadly Game”

Related article from NY Times (10/4/21): The Supreme Court Has Gone Off the Rails by Donald Ayers

Mr. Ayer was a U.S. attorney and principal deputy solicitor general in the Reagan administration and deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration.

An excerpt:

[The Supreme Court’s] recent history suggests that it lacks a majority of justices with sufficient concern about the basic continuity and integrity of the law or the ability of government to functionit seems ready to cast aside certain constitutional rights, the court today regularly gives sweeping new interpretations to other rights and invokes them to radically narrow certain government powers that were until quite recently uncontroversial, including, for example, powers related to public safety or our democratic process...

Perhaps most unexpected and disturbing were decisions elevating rights of religious assembly over local public-safety rules related to Covid-19 that limited the ability to gather. Yet throughout our history, in matters of public health, the powers of local government have usually been at their apex. That did not matter here — nor did the fact that Chief Justice Roberts was among the dissenters.

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