A Constitutional Guide to Emergency Powers

Federal leadership is crucial, but there are measures only states have the authority to take.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Charles Stimson

March 19, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to extraordinary restraints on liberty, from international travel bans to state and local orders that businesses shut down, individuals avoid large assemblies and even stay home, and infected patients remain in quarantine. Depending on the epidemic’s progress, even more-draconian measures may be needed, such as restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel. It’s possible that “social distancing” will last for months rather than weeks.

All this goes against the grain in America, whose people treasure freedom and constitutional rights. But the government has ample constitutional and legal authority to impose such emergency steps.

Some state officials, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have urged the White House to take charge. But this isn’t a task for Washington alone. While the federal government has limited and enumerated constitutional authority, states possess a plenary “police power” and have primary responsibility for protecting public health.

States may also take more drastic measures, such as requiring citizens to be tested or vaccinated, even against their will. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a state law requiring everyone to be vaccinated against smallpox. Henning Jacobson refused vaccination and was convicted. The court upheld the law and Jacobson’s conviction.

“The Constitution,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for a 7-2 majority, “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.” Instead, “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic.” Its members “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.”

States also have the power, beyond criminal law enforcement, to make quarantine and isolation effective. If presented with widespread noncompliance, governors may call National Guard units to put their orders into force, to safeguard state property and infrastructure, and to maintain the peace. In some states, individuals who violate emergency orders can be detained without charge and held in isolation.

Federal leadership is crucial. Washington has wider access to data about the virus, its migration and trends. It is prudent for states to follow federal guidance on matters like quarantine and travel restrictions. But because Washington lacks states’ police power, compulsion is not always an option. The Constitution forbids federal officials from coercing the states or commandeering state resources or civilian personnel. While Washington may withhold some federal funds from states that refuse to follow federal law, it may do so only in ways that are tailored to advance the federal interests at stake and don’t amount to a “gun to the head,” as Chief Justice John Roberts put it in the 2012 ObamaCare case.

The federal government has the authority to order regional or nationwide containment and quarantine measures. The Public Health Service Act enables the surgeon general, with the approval of the secretary of health and human services, “to make and enforce such regulations as . . . are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases.” President Trump listed the Covid-19 virus for this purpose in January. The act authorizes the federal government to apprehend, detain and conditionally release individuals to prevent the spread of infection, and to detain anyone who enters from a foreign country or who would spread the disease across state borders.

The act can be read to allow for the general quarantine of all people from a particular state or states, including those who are asymptomatic or even have tested negative. But an attempt to do so would certainly result in litigation. Congress should promptly enact a statute that would affirm federal authority to impose a general quarantine if necessary.

To enforce such measures, the president can deploy civilian and military resources. He could federalize the National Guard over the governor’s objection. The Constitution allows Congress to authorize the use of the militia as well as regular armed forces for a variety of purposes, including suppression of insurrections, defense against invasions, and execution of laws.

Congress has placed significant constraints on the domestic use of the U.S. military. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibits the use of U.S. armed forces for “performing domesti law enforcement activities” and features criminal penalties for noncompliance. But lawmakers have enacted important exceptions that allow the use, in certain specified circumstances, of the military to enforce federal laws. One is the Insurrection Act, originally dating to 1807, which allows the president to use the military when dealing with domestic rebellions. Widespread noncompliance with federal quarantines and travel bans promulgated under the Public Health Service Act may qualify as an insurrection.

Containing the Covid-19 epidemic will require citizens, states, private companies and the federal government to work together. One may hope the steps that have been taken so far will suffice. But emphasizing the sound constitutional and legal basis of these measures is important in reassuring the public that government can do what is necessary to secure the general welfare.

Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy Departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Stimson is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-constitutional-guide-to-emergency-powers-11584659429

The Federalism Fallacy in King v. Burwell

By DAVID RIVKIN and ELIZABETH PRICE FOLEY, March 11, 2015

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The case centers on a provision of Obamacare that authorizes federal tax subsidies for individuals only if they purchase health insurance through an “Exchange established by the State.” If an individual purchases insurance through a federal-run exchange (in the event that the state opts out of setting up its own exchange), can she still qualify for Obamacare subsidies? The Obama administration says yes; the King plaintiffs say no. 

A great deal is at stake here. If the plaintiffs win, individuals in 34 states—the states that have opted not to operate a state insurance exchange—will still be subject to Obamacare’s individual mandate, but they won’t qualify for federal tax subsidies. As a result, their insurance will cost more out-of-pocket. Moreover, because individuals in these 34 states won’t get tax subsidies, employers in these states won’t be subject to the employer mandate, so they won’t have to offer health insurance and can’t be taxed for failing to do so. And yet, those states would be able to continue registering their profound opposition to the entirety of the Obamacare regulatory scheme, thereby undermining its legitimacy. Given these consequences, supporters of Obamacare are pulling out all the stops to prevent a plaintiffs’ victory.

One recent attempt to save tax subsidies in these 34 states has come from an amicus brief filed on behalf of four law professors, two of whom are former clerks to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During the King oral arguments, it became apparent that their argument had found favor with Ginsburg and three other liberal justices and had gained some traction with the court’s centrist, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Ironically, the centerpiece of their argument is federalism—the division of powers between state and federal governments—a concept that, while a key part of the Constitution’s separation of powers architecture, is not particularly favored by liberals. Specifically, the law professors’ claim that the court should rule in favor of the Obama administration by invoking the “clear statement rule,” a legal doctrine designed to protect state sovereignty.

However, applying this rule to the King case would be unprecedented and deeply antithetical to federalism. Read more »

Nevada’s Right Choice on Immigration

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. And LEE A. CASEY, Feb. 2, 2015 7:40 p.m. ET

A very public dispute broke out last week when Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt went against Gov. Brian Sandoval’s wishes and joined a lawsuit filed by 25 other states challenging President Obama’s imposition of his immigration reform policies by executive action.

Messrs. Sandoval and Laxalt are both Republicans who agree that the current immigration system is broken and that comprehensive reform is necessary. But Mr. Sandoval opposes litigation and has suggested that new immigration reform legislation is the best way to proceed.

Yet on Jan. 26 Mr. Laxalt announced that Nevada had joined the plaintiff states in Texas v. United States of America. “As Nevada’s chief legal officer,” he explained, “I am directed by Nevada’s Constitution and laws to take legal action whenever necessary ‘to protect and secure the interest of the state.’ ”

Mr. Laxalt was right to join the suit. Mr. Sandoval’s legislative path will neither solve America’s vexing immigration problems nor rein in a president who has ignored the Constitution’s limits on executive power.

Texas v. United States of America challenges the president’s use of an executive order to suspend federal immigration laws that require, among other things, deportation of undocumented immigrants and strict limits on who may lawfully work in the U.S. The Constitution requires that the president “Take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and provides no exemption for laws with which the president disagrees.

As the Supreme Court stated in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), ruling against President Harry Truman’s seizure of the nation’s steel industry during the Korean War, “the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.” Read more »

Plenty of debates, not much about states

Democrats regard federalism as quaint, Republicans at least pay lip service to it

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

In the presidential debates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney ranged across dozens of topics, but an important one didn’t come up: federalism. And no wonder.

The idea that the Constitution grants only limited and enumerated powers and leaves the remainder to the states is foreign to those who believe that the national government should or even could address voters’ every concern. But contrary to the view widely shared by the political class, Washington—in particular, Congress—does not have the power to pass any law it wants in the name of the “general welfare.”

Politicians should take heed. Voters are increasingly focused on the proper role of government in society: Witness the rise of the tea party and unease over the massive debt caused by entitlements and other government handouts. The continuing loud objection to ObamaCare’s takeover of health care shows that voters want to preserve the Constitution’s architecture of limited federal power.

Read more »