When the average person thinks about Supreme Court cases, famous decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, or Obergefell v. Hodges usually come to mind. These are all landmark cases that seriously changed our country’s history and have made an indelible mark on our minds. As our country fights back against COVID-19, our governments, both federal and state have been forced to enact authoritarian orders never seen on a widespread level. Naturally, our sue happy populace will be bringing numerous legal challenges to these orders as the good red-blooded Americans they are. In time, a long forgotten Supreme Court case will become common knowledge because of these lawsuits, a 115 year old case called Jacobson v. Massachusetts.
In 1905, the world was fighting against a deadly virus, Smallpox; the same disease that had nearly wiped out the Native American population when European Settlers arrived in the new world centuries ago. As part of the fight against Smallpox, the Massachusetts state government ordered mandatory vaccinations against Smallpox for all citizens. Jacobson, a citizen of Massachusetts (who had already been vaccinated when he was citizen of Sweden) did not want his children vaccinated, claiming the vaccine would cause his children adverse effects. Mr. Jacobson refused the vaccinations and after a legal battle with Massachusetts, he ended up in front of the Supreme Court.
At the Supreme Court, Mr. Jacobson argued that mandatory vaccinations were a violation of his individual liberty, given to him by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed. In a 7-2 opinion, Justice Harlan declared that personal liberties could be suspended when “the safety of the general public may demand.” The opinion in Jacobson v. Massachusetts determined that government measures must be grounded in public health needs and tailored to address specific problems. The government measures cannot be used to target certain groups.
The precedent set by Jacobson was reaffirmed in a 1922 case, Zucht v. King, when the Supreme Court ruled that a school could refuse admission to an unvaccinated child. Jacobson was most recently used to defend Mayor Bill de Blasio’s orders surrounding a spike in measles infections in New York City communities.
The first example of Jacobson v. Massachusetts to defend COVID-19 regulations has already happened. As part of their fight, the Texas Government declared that abortions were considered non-essential services and were temporarily banned as a measure to save medical resources. This order was immediately challenged and quickly found its way to the 5th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Leaning heavily on precedent set by Jacobson, the 5th Circuit declared in a 2-1 opinion that Texas is allowed to temporarily ban abortions while the state combats the current public health crisis.
Obviously this ruling has been met with strong criticism. The dissenting judge in the case, Judge James Dennis, argued that the 5th Circuit majority had taken the Jacobson precedent too far, writing that the vaccine in Jacobson was being used to directly fight against the public health issue, while in the current case, Texas was banning abortions to just help conserve medical supplies for doctors fighting COVID-19.
Now that a federal circuit court has brought Jacobson v. Massachusetts back into the limelight, expect to hear about the case in legal battles not just limited to medical decisions, but likely in legal decisions about the stay-at-home orders as well.
In his majority opinion, Justice Harlan supported police powers that protected lives, but he wanted to make one thing clear to the American people: “general terms should be limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or absurd consequence.” There are twelve circuits that make up our country, which means we will likely see twelve different opinions about this matter. It will be up to Justice Harlan’s modern day colleagues in the Supreme Court to further define what injustice, oppression, and absurd consequence mean today.
Biskupic, Joan. “The 115-Year-Old Supreme Court Opinion That Could Determine Rights during a Pandemic.” CNN, Cable News Network, 10 Apr. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/04/10/politics/pandemic-coronavirus-jacobson-supreme-court-abortion-rights/index.html.
Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).