New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently backed down and let a nurse forced into Ebola quarantine go back to her home state of Maine, but the high-profile case has stirred up controversy over the legality of quarantines.
The state of New Jersey isolated Kaci Hickox at a Newark hospital after she returned from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone even though she was symptom-free. She said the quarantine violated her Constitutional rights, but Christie defended the action and said it was the “government’s job” to make the public safe.
Indeed, both the federal and state governments have the right to quarantine citizens under certain circumstances.
The US government has the power to quarantine citizens under a 1944 law called the Public Health Services Act, which empowers the federal government to contain infectious diseases from other countries. States generally have the right to quarantine people under the 10th Amendment, which gives states powers not expressly given to the federal government.
As Cornell Law School professor Michael Dorf has written, “[I]t has long been understood that states may quarantine.”
The power to quarantine is not unlimited, though. The Constitution says that individuals have certain rights even under quarantine or isolation situations, as Scott Bomboy has written in Constitution Daily.
“Under the rights of Due Process, public health regulations used to impose such conditions can’t be ‘arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable,'” wrote Bomboy, who’s editor-in-chief at the National Constitution Center.
In the case of Kaci Hickox, the state of New Jersey may have been able to argue that it wasn’t acting arbitrarily even though medical experts typically don’t recommend quarantines for people who are asymptomatic. After all, it might be rational for the government to quarantine somebody who isn’t showing symptoms because, in some cases, they may end up showing symptoms later and exposing themselves to other people, the law professor Michael Dorf explained.
“I guess I think the best thing that can be said for the state’s position is even if a quarantine is not recommended for people who are asymptomatic,” Dorf, the Cornell Law professor told me, “it still might be helpful for the rare cases where somebody becomes symptomatic where they’re exposed to the general public.”
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