By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
Nov. 27, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal
The Covid-19 pandemic “has served as a sort of constitutional stress test,” Justice Samuel Alito observed this month. “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” The setting underscored the point: Justice Alito made his remarks in an online speech that ordinarily would have been delivered in a cavernous hall, before a crowd of hundreds gathered for the Federalist Society’s annual dinner.
A public-health emergency may justify curtailments of liberty that would be unacceptable in normal times. But even in an emergency, America’s government doesn’t wield unlimited powers. Measures taken to deal with this pandemic have imposed severe restrictions on the most basic rights and liberties, often with little consideration of their legal basis. The U.S. Constitution prohibits many of the most draconian measures taken or under consideration.
Joe Biden has implicitly acknowledged the point. Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August, the former vice president declared: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask—not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty.” But his transition website promises only to “implement mask mandates nationwide by working with governors and mayors.”
A federal mask mandate is a nonstarter because it would have to be grounded in one of Congress’s constitutionally enumerated powers, all of which have limits. The go-to section to justify federal regulation is the clause granting lawmakers the power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states.” As the Supreme Court held in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), which involved the ObamaCare mandate to buy medical insurance, individuals must be engaged in commercial activity before Congress can regulate them. Congress cannot impose requirements on the citizenry “precisely because they are doing nothing,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The same is true of other prospective federal anti-Covid measures, such as a national “stay at home” order or an overall economic lockdown. Congress does have broad authority to regulate business, which it could use to impose workplace safety rules, including mask mandates. But nationwide lockdowns are a dubious legal proposition. Congress has never attempted to eliminate all or most economic activity. Any such requirement, even if supportable under the Commerce Clause, would raise significant concerns about the constitutional rights of people prevented from earning a living.
State and local mandates pose a more complicated question. Unlike the federal government, states have a general “police power” that permits them to enact public-health regulations. State and local mask mandates will likely survive judicial scrutiny, as the burden is relatively small. But quarantine requirements imposed on otherwise healthy people, and especially stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of economic activity, are another matter.
Courts have generally upheld quarantines as proper exercises of state police power. But they have traditionally required the involuntary seclusion only of infected individuals and those exposed to them. Quarantines for travelers may survive constitutional challenges. They are generally limited to 14 days or less and arguably supported by the states’ interest in limiting the potential to spread the infection from viral “hot spots.”
But states have no constitutional authority to discriminate against out-of-state persons, goods or services or to burden interstate commerce unduly. It would be hard to justify restrictions that draw arbitrary distinctions between intra- and interstate travelers or among states. New York’s current rules, for instance, exempt travelers within New York and from adjacent states while ordering quarantine for those from distant states with lower Covid rates.
Universal, open-ended stay-at-home mandates and general economic shutdowns are unprecedented in America. The former amount to the imposition of house arrest on vast numbers of people without due process or any provision for basic needs. They raise important constitutional issues involving freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection.
Mandating how many individuals can meet in one’s home, as some states did in time for Thanksgiving, is particularly difficult to justify. If the government can regulate your dinner guests, what can’t it do? Although the government has imposed location-specific curfews in times of war and civil disorder to address specific public-safety concerns, protracted populationwide curfews directed at more-nebulous threats will be difficult to justify.
Some of these issues will doubtless reach the Supreme Court, but lower courts are already wrestling with them. In County of Butler v. Wolf, William S. Stickman IV, a federal district judge in Pittsburgh, struck down Pennsylvania’s most draconian anti-Covid-19 measures. These included strict limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, stay-at-home requirements, and the lockdown of businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.” Judge Stickman found these measures wanting on First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection grounds, even under an “intermediate” level of scrutiny.
“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Judge Stickman concluded in his September decision. He took particular note of Pennsylvania’s diversity of communities—and hence of Covid risks—as against the state’s “one-size fits all approach” to stay-at-home orders, which were not in any way tailored to minimize the burden while achieving the government’s legitimate ends.
Judge Stickman concluded that Pennsylvania’s business lockdown requirements failed to meet even the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny—being rationally related to a proper state purpose. He noted that the state had not articulated “a set, objective and measurable definition” of “life-sustaining” businesses, and that its requirements arbitrarily favored large retailers over small ones. Pennsylvania has appealed Judge Stickman’s decision, but it is difficult to see how the state can defend such capricious and comprehensive restrictions. The same goes for other states: Such details as closing health clubs but not beauty salons (New York), or imposing restrictions on the use of sailboats but not motorboats (Michigan), appear driven not by any rational basis but by government officials’ aesthetic and ideological preferences.
No doubt some judges will be inclined to defer to government officials in an emergency. Five Supreme Court justices did so earlier this year when churches in California and Nevada sought to enjoin state orders limiting the number of worshipers at services. In both cases, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the court’s four Democratic appointees to deny immediate relief.
But the other four justices dissented in both cases on the grounds that the orders violate freedom of religion by imposing greater limits on religious activities than comparable secular businesses, including casinos. As Justice Alito quipped during his Federalist Society speech: “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty. You will not find a craps clause.”
This Wednesday the court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox synagogue, which are challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s occupancy limits. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the new 5-4 majority. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch observed that the state had ignored “long-settled principles” that almost always prohibit government officials “from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities.”
One area in which the states clearly can impose anti-Covid mandates is vaccinations. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme court upheld the city of Cambridge’s authority to respond to a smallpox outbreak by mandating vaccines for all inhabitants. The justices affirmed that “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.”
Congress may also be able to impose vaccination or testing on employees or others engaged in commerce. But proponents of economic lockdowns overreach when they cite Jacobson in support. The case was modest in scope and dealt with a far surer remedy for a deadlier virus than Covid-19.
Federal and state officials have every right to urge Americans to take precautions against viral spread, though it would help if they consistently followed their own advice. But when the government moves beyond persuasion to coercion, its requirements must meet constitutional muster.
Some of them will, such as well-tailored state-level mask and vaccination mandates. Others probably won’t, including broad curfews, stay-at-home orders, economic lockdown mandates and measures that target protected First Amendment activities. There may be a “judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in the New York case. “But . . . we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.