Quarantines (and Law?)
posted by Steve Vladeck
The news has, understandably, been saturated the last two days with the story of the U.S. citizen infected with a drug-resistant form of TB who has been quarantined by the federal government, the first time in over four decades that the feds have invoked such an important and exceptional authority.
Missing from nearly all of the accounts that I’ve read, though, is any discussion on the law of quarantine, an essential aspect of national security law, and yet one that has been largely neglected in the aftermath of 9/11. The seminal case, of course, is Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in which Justice Holmes held that the state’s compelling interest in protecting the public health outweighed an individual’s Fourteenth Amendment-based liberty interest. But Jacobson is over a century old, and there are lots of subsequent developments that suggest that Holmes’s open-ended reasoning may not be quite so limitless today.
All of this raises the question of why we seem indifferent to the legal implications. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that the government lacks the authority to quarantine individuals infected with TB. 42 U.S.C. 264 seems to expressly provide to the contrary. But on the theory that every case is precedent (except Bush v. Gore, anyway), shouldn’t this case provoke at least some discussion of the current legal authorities vis-a-vis quarantine, and the constitutional issues that invocation of such a sweeping power to detain naturally raise?