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Volokh Conspiracy

Western District of Pennsylvania Accurately Stated the Modern-Day Relevance of Jacobson v. Massachusetts

I am working on a long article on the 1st, 2nd, and 14th Amendment rights during the pandemic. Stay tuned.


Over the past few months, I have written several blog posts about how the courts have approached the 1st, 2nd, and 14th Amendments during the pandemic. Those posts will serve as the basis for a lengthy article. I should be able to post it to SSRN by the end of this month. It is comprehensive.

For now, I will flag a portion of Judge Stickman's decision in the Pennsylvania lockdown case. (Eugene flagged it earlier). He accurately stated the place Jacobson occupies in our constitutional canon.

Jacobson was decided over a century ago. Since that time, there has been substantial development of federal constitutional law in the area of civil liberties. As a general matter, this development has seen a jurisprudential shift whereby federal courts have given greater deference to considerations of individual liberties, as weighed against the exercise of state police powers. That century of development has seen the creation of tiered levels of scrutiny for constitutional claims. They did not exist when Jacobson was decided. While Jacobson has been cited by some modern courts as ongoing support for a broad, hands-off deference to state authorities in matters of health and safety, other courts and commentators have questioned whether it remains instructive in light of the intervening jurisprudential developments.

In Bayley's Campground, Inc. v. Mills, _ F. Supp. 3d _, 2020 WL 2791797 (D. Me. May 29, 2020), a district court examined whether the governor of Maine's emergency order requiring, inter alia, visitors from out of state to self-quarantine, was constitutional. As here, before proceeding to its analysis of the substantive legal issues, the court examined how it should weigh the issues—according to a very deferential analysis purportedly consistent with Jacobson, as advocated by the governor, or under "regular" levels of scrutiny advocated by the plaintiffs. The district court examined Jacobson and, specifically, whether it warranted the application of a looser, more deferential, standard than the "regular" tiered scrutiny used on constitutional challenges. It observed: "[i]n the eleven decades since Jacobson, the Supreme Court refined its approach for the review of state action that burdens constitutional rights." Id. at *8 (citing Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 857 (1992)). See also Planned Parenthood, 505 U.S. at 857 (citing Jacobson, 197 U.S. 24-30) (affirming that "a State's interest in the protection of life falls short of justifying any plenary override of individual liberty claims."). The district court declined to apply a standard below those of the established tiered levels of scrutiny. It stated:

[T]he permissive Jacobson rule floats about in the air as a rubber stamp for all but the most absurd and egregious restrictions on constitutional liberties, free from the inconvenience of meaningful judicial review. This may help explain why the Supreme Court established the traditional tiers of scrutiny in the course of the 100 years since Jacobson was decided. Bayley's Campground, at *8.

Judge Strickman is exactly right. Jacobson, on its own terms, does not apply to these sorts of COVID-19 cases. Now that we have moved from the early days of the pandemic, I hope courts can approach these unprecedented lockdown measures with more consideration.