Why have state and local governments allowed a summer surge of COVID-19 to happen when they have safe and effective vaccines at their disposal -- and the legal authority to enforce their use? That question arises from a Washington Post article under the headline: "Require the vaccine: It's time to stop coddling the reckless." Writes Ruth Marcus:
It’s reasonable, it’s fair, and it’s legal to step up the pressure on the reckless noncompliant. By reckless, I mean to exclude some people: If you have a medical condition that counsels against vaccination, you are excused.
If you have a good-faith religious objection, same — although I have a hard time imagining what that might be beyond adherents of Christian Science, or what religion does not advocate some version of the Golden Rule. Yes, some fetal cell lines were used in the development or testing of the vaccines, but the Vatican has declared that it is “morally acceptable” to take the vaccines, and that reasoning seems solid.
Federal judges have already rejected challenges to vaccine mandates by hospitals and public universities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made it clear that federal anti-discrimination laws don’t prevent private employers from requiring proof of vaccination. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that federal law “does not prohibit public or private entities from imposing vaccination requirements” for vaccines even at the emergency-use stage.
A century ago, balancing the tension between individual liberties and public safety, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of state and local governments to enforce mandatory vaccination laws. “In every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan, “the rights of the individual … may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Then the great danger was a smallpox epidemic. Today it is a global covid-19 pandemic. The “safety of the general public” demands a “reasonable” response today, just as it did in 1905.
The SCOTUS case in question was styled Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905). In it, a Massachusetts resident named Henning Jacobson challenged as unconstitutional a state law that made smallpox vaccinations mandatory. Jacobson claimed that, back in his native Sweden, he had suffered a bad reaction to a vaccine as an infant, struggling for years with an angry rash.
Roughly 115 years after it was issued, the Jacobson case is back in the news because of President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates last week related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nation's highest court rejected Jacobson's argument that he was protected by the U.S. Constitution's Due Process Clause, finding the state's police power gave it the authority to enforce such a statute. That likely means Biden's COVID orders rest on solid legal footing. From the opinion (Most citations omitted for ease of reading):
The authority of the State to enact this statute is to be referred to what is commonly called the police power — a power which the State did not surrender when becoming a member of the Union under the Constitution. Although this court has refrained from any attempt to define the limits of that power, yet it has distinctly recognized the authority of a State to enact quarantine laws and "health laws of every description;" indeed, all laws that relate to matters completely within its territory and which do not by their necessary operation affect the people of other States. According to settled principles the police power of a State must be held to embrace, at least, such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety. It is equally true that the State may invest local bodies called into existence for purposes of local administration with authority in some appropriate way to safeguard the public health and the public safety. The mode or manner in which those results are to be accomplished is within the discretion of the State, subject, of course, so far as Federal power is concerned, only to the condition that no rule prescribed by a State, nor any regulation adopted by a local governmental agency acting under the sanction of state legislation, shall contravene the Constitution of the United States or infringe any right granted or secured by that instrument. A local enactment or regulation, even if based on the acknowledged police powers of a State, must always yield in case of conflict with the exercise by the General Government of any power it possesses under the Constitution, or with any right which that instrument gives or secures.
Were any of Jacobson's constitutional rights trampled by the state law? No was the answer from the high court:
We come, then, to inquire whether any right given, or secured by the Constitution, is invaded by the statute as interpreted by the state court. The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the State subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination; that a compulsory vaccination law is unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best; and that the execution of such a law against one who objects to vaccination, no matter for what reason, is nothing short of an assault upon his person. But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others. This court has more than once recognized it as a fundamental principle that "persons and property are subjected to all kinds of restraints and burdens, in order to secure the general comfort, health, and prosperity of the State; of the perfect right of the legislature to do which no question ever was, or upon acknowledged general principles ever can be made, so far as natural persons are concerned." Railroad Co. v. Husen, 95 U.S. 465, 471, we said: "The possession and enjoyment of all rights are subject to such reasonable conditions as may be deemed by the governing authority of the country essential to the safety, health, peace, good order and morals of the community. 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. It is then liberty regulated by law." In the constitution of Massachusetts adopted in 1780 it was laid down as a fundamental principle of the social compact that the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for "the common good," and that government is instituted "for the common good, for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor or private interests of any one man, family or class of men." The good and welfare of the Commonwealth, of which the legislature is primarily the judge, is the basis on which the police power rests in Massachusetts.
Was the state law onerous? Again, SCOTUS' answer was no:
Applying these principles to the present case, it is to be observed that the legislature of Massachusetts required the inhabitants of a city or town to be vaccinated only when, in the opinion of the Board of Health, that was necessary for the public health or the public safety. The authority to determine for all what ought to be done in such an emergency must have been lodged somewhere or in some body; and surely it was appropriate for the legislature to refer that question, in the first instance, to a Board of Health, composed of persons residing in the locality affected and appointed, presumably, because of their fitness to determine such questions. To invest such a body with authority over such matters was not an unusual nor an unreasonable or arbitrary requirement. Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members. It is to be observed that when the regulation in question was adopted, smallpox, according to the recitals in the regulation adopted by the Board of Health, was prevalent to some extent in the city of Cambridge and the disease was increasing. If such was the situation — and nothing is asserted or appears in the record to the contrary — if we are to attach any value whatever to the knowledge which, it is safe to affirm, is common to all civilized peoples touching smallpox and the methods most usually employed to eradicate that disease, it cannot be adjudged that the present regulation of the Board of Health was not necessary in order to protect the public health and secure the public safety. Smallpox being prevalent and increasing at Cambridge, the court would usurp the functions of another branch of government if it adjudged, as matter of law, that the mode adopted under the sanction of the State, to protect the people at large, was arbitrary and not justified by the necessities of the case. We say necessities of the case, because it might be that an acknowledged power of a local community to protect itself against an epidemic threatening the safety of all, might be exercised in particular circumstances and in reference to particular persons in such an arbitrary, unreasonable manner, or might go so far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public, as to authorize or compel the courts to interfere for the protection of such persons. Wisconsin &c. R.R. Co. v. Jacobson, 179 U.S. 287, 301; Freund's Police Power, § 63 et seq. In Railroad Company v. Husen, 95 U.S. 465, 471-473, this court recognized the right of a State to pass sanitary laws, laws for the protection of life, liberty, health or property within its limits, laws to prevent persons and animals suffering under contagious or infectious diseases, or convicts, from coming within its borders. But as the laws there involved went beyond the necessity of the case and under the guise of exerting a police power invaded the domain of Federal authority and violated rights secured by the Constitution, this court deemed it to be its duty to hold such laws invalid. If the mode adopted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the protection of its local communities against smallpox proved to be distressing, inconvenient or objectionable to some — if nothing more could be reasonably affirmed of the statute in question — the answer is that it was the duty of the constituted authorities primarily to keep in view the welfare, comfort and safety of the many, and not permit the interests of the many to be subordinated to the wishes or convenience of the few. There is, of course, a sphere within which the individual may assert the supremacy of his own will and rightfully dispute the authority of any human government, especially of any free government existing under a written constitution, to interfere with the exercise of that will. But it is equally true that in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand. An American citizen, arriving at an American port on a vessel in which, during the voyage, there had been cases of yellow fever or Asiatic cholera, although apparently free from disease himself, may yet, in some circumstances, be held in quarantine against his will on board of such vessel or in a quarantine station, until it be ascertained by inspection, conducted with due diligence, that the danger of the spread of the disease among the community at large has disappeared. The liberty secured by the Fourteenth Amendment, this court has said, consists, in part, in the right of a person "to live and work where he will," Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578; and yet he may be compelled, by force if need be, against his will and without regard to his personal wishes or his pecuniary interests, or even his religious or political convictions, to take his place in the ranks of the army of his country and risk the chance of being shot down in its defense. It is not, therefore, true that the power of the public to guard itself against imminent danger depends in every case involving the control of one's body upon his willingness to submit to reasonable regulations established by the constituted authorities, under the sanction of the State, for the purpose of protecting the public collectively against such danger.
In essence, SCOTUS found that Massachusetts had the authority to protect public health:
Looking at the propositions embodied in the defendant's rejected offers of proof it is clear that they are more formidable by their number than by their inherent value. Those offers in the main seem to have had no purpose except to state the general theory of those of the medical profession who attach little or no value to vaccination as a means of preventing the spread of smallpox or who think that vaccination causes other diseases of the body. What everybody knows the court must know, and therefore the state court judicially knew, as this court knows, that an opposite theory accords with the common belief and is maintained by high medical authority. We must assume that when the statute in question was passed, the legislature of Massachusetts was not unaware of these opposing theories, and was compelled, of necessity, to choose between them. It was not compelled to commit a matter involving the public health and safety to the final decision of a court or jury. It is no part of the function of a court or a jury to determine which one of two modes was likely to be the most effective for the protection of the public against disease. That was for the legislative department to determine in the light of all the information it had or could obtain. It could not properly abdicate its function to guard the public health and safety. The state legislature proceeded upon the theory which recognized vaccination as at least an effective if not the best known way in which to meet and suppress the evils of a smallpox epidemic that imperiled an entire population. Upon what sound principles as to the relations existing between the different departments of government can the court review this action of the legislature? If there is any such power in the judiciary to review legislative action in respect of a matter affecting the general welfare, it can only be when that which the legislature has done comes within the rule that if a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, the public morals or the public safety, has no real or substantial relation to those objects, or is, beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law, it is the duty of the courts to so adjudge, and thereby give effect to the Constitution." Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623, 661.
Whatever may be thought of the expediency of this statute, it cannot be affirmed to be, beyond question, in palpable conflict with the Constitution. Nor, in view of the methods employed to stamp out the disease of smallpox, can anyone confidently assert that the means prescribed by the State to that end has no real or substantial relation to the protection of the public health and the public safety. Such an assertion would not be consistent with the experience of this and other countries whose authorities have dealt with the disease of smallpox. And the principle of vaccination as a means to prevent the spread of smallpox has been enforced in many States by statutes making the vaccination of children a condition of their right to enter or remain in public schools. Blue v. Beach, 155 Indiana, 121.
Speaking of kids and school, I can remember my mother taking me to the lunchroom at Portland Elementary School in Springfield, MO, to have some kind of shot administered to my arm -- I don't think I even knew what it was for at the time. But I know now it was for smallpox, and even though I don't recall my mom saying it then, I would not have been allowed to attend school without it. It was not controversial in the least, best I could tell; we just did it, no fuss, no muss. Like millions of other Americans, I still have a slight bump on my upper left arm as a reminder of that day:
The latest case upon the subject of which we are aware is Viemeister v. White, President &c., decided very recently by the Court of Appeals of New York, and the opinion in which has not yet appeared in the regular reports. That case involved the validity of a statute excluding from the public schools all children who had not been vaccinated. One contention was that the statute and the regulation adopted in exercise of its provisions was inconsistent with the rights, privileges and liberties of the citizen. The contention was overruled, the court saying, among other things: "Smallpox is known of all to be a dangerous and contagious disease. If vaccination strongly tends to prevent the transmission or spread of this disease, it logically follows that children may be refused admission to the public schools until they have been vaccinated. The appellant claims that vaccination does not tend to prevent smallpox, but tends to bring about other diseases, and that it does much harm, with no good.
"It must be conceded that some laymen, both learned and unlearned, and some physicians of great skill and repute, do not believe that vaccination is a preventive of smallpox. The common belief, however, is that it has a decided tendency to prevent the spread of this fearful disease and to render it less dangerous to those who contract it. While not accepted by all, it is accepted by the mass of the people, as well as by most members of the medical profession. It has been general in our State and in most civilized nations for generations. It is generally accepted in theory and generally applied in practice, both by the voluntary action of the people and in obedience to the command of law. Nearly every State of the Union has statutes to encourage, or directly or indirectly to require, vaccination, and this is true of most nations of Europe. . . .
"A common belief, like common knowledge, does not require evidence to establish its existence, but may be acted upon without proof by the legislature and the courts. . . ."The fact that the belief is not universal is not controlling, for there is scarcely any belief that is accepted by everyone. The possibility that the belief may be wrong, and that science may yet show it to be wrong, is not conclusive; for the legislature has the right to pass laws which, according to the common belief of the people, are adapted to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. In a free country, where the government is by the people, through their chosen representatives, practical legislation admits of no other standard of action; for what the people believe is for the common welfare must be accepted as tending to promote the common welfare, whether it does in fact of not. Any other basis would conflict with the spirit of the Constitution, and would sanction measures opposed to a republican form of government. While we do not decide and cannot decide that vaccination is a preventive of smallpox, we take judicial notice of the fact that this is the common belief of the people of the State, and with this fact as a foundation we hold that the statute in question is a health law, enacted in a reasonable and proper exercise of the police power."
Could Biden's orders be challenged in court? Could that bring Jacobson back into the news as the guiding precedent on matters of vaccines? The answer to both questions is yes. But as we reported in a recent post, legal experts seem to think Biden's orders stand on firm legal ground:
In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that public health measures, like vaccination, imposed by states are constitutional because, in essence, living in society comes with restrictions, including those pertaining to public health.
At the heart of the case is the intersection between public health and a person’s individual rights. The court ruled that while the state doesn’t have absolute power to limit individual rights, it can impose reasonable limits when it comes to public health.
Now in the wake of the sweeping federal vaccine mandates President Biden announced on Thursday and claims by some Republican lawmakers that the rules are unconstitutional, experts say legal challenges to the measure are likely to be unsuccessful because of the strong precedent established by the Jacobson case.
“I think the Biden administration can clearly point to the fact that there is an ability of governmental entities to mandate vaccination,” Brian Dean Abramson, an adjunct professor of vaccination law at Florida International University, said of the Jacobson case.