Vaccine Mandates: The First Supreme Court Case
The constitutionality of government mandated vaccinations is one of the hot button legal issues of 2021. However, the controversy surrounding compulsory vaccines is over a century old in the United States. The lengthy history of this ongoing debate deserves its own textbook, but one fundamental Supreme Court case can shed light on what today’s courts are thinking about.
Although the first vaccine for smallpox made its way to the United States at the end of the 18th century, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t take up the issue of mandatory vaccinations until 1905 in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts.
In 1902, Massachusetts suffered an outbreak of smallpox, and the city of Cambridge Massachusetts’ Board of Health adopted a regulation requiring the vaccination of its residents. Cambridge inhabitants that refused were subject to a $5 fine. A Cambridge pastor, Henning Jacobson, experienced a bad reaction after receiving the smallpox vaccine as a child, and he felt his family inherited a condition that made the vaccine uniquely dangerous. Mr. Jacobson refused to be vaccinated or pay the associated fine which ultimately led to his criminal prosecution.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Jacobson argued the Cambridge regulation infringed upon his rights secured by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment contains several broadly worded civil protections, including a clause providing:
“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws[.]”
Referencing the above clause, Mr. Jacobson contended the Massachusetts ordinance deprived him of his constitutionally protected individual liberties and, ultimately, that citizens should not be penalized for refusing vaccinations in any circumstance. He also argued that the regulation was “arbitrary and oppressive,” employing words from a legal standard in constitutional precedent.
In response, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts argued that constitutionally protected individual liberties are not limitless in scope. Specifically, the U.S. Constitution also grants “police power” to the states to take specific actions to ensure the health and safety of its citizens.
The Supreme Court sided with Massachusetts in an opinion authored by Justice Harlan. In essence, the Court affirmed that individual liberties must in certain circumstances give way to public health initiatives:
There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.
Justice Harlan concluded by clarifying that in “extreme cases” forced vaccinations would be “cruel and inhumane” to individuals with peculiar health conditions. In those circumstances, the Court explained that the states’ administrative systems could adequately account for individualized vulnerabilities. However, the issue before the Court was whether general application of state-led vaccine mandates was permissible, and on that question, the Court determined that the public health measure did not violate the Constitution.