Constitutional Law Blog Essay

COVID-19 Reinforces the Argument for “Regular” Judicial Review—Not Suspension of Civil Liberties—In Times of Crisis

Not surprisingly, local and state government orders aimed at mitigating the spread of novel coronavirus have already provoked a series of objections grounded in civil liberties. Just as quickly, courts entertaining challenges to these orders have stumbled into the central (and long-running) normative debate over emergency powers: Should constitutional constraints on government action be suspended in times of emergency (because emergencies are “extraconstitutional”), or do constitutional doctrines forged in calmer times adequately accommodate exigent circumstances?

In one of the first challenges to a coronavirus emergency order, New Hampshire defended Governor Christopher Sununu’s emergency order banning gatherings by arguing that “[a] court should only interfere” with “[a]n executive’s decision to exercise emergency powers in the face of a rapidly evolving public health crisis. . . . when the executive’s actions were not taken in good faith or if there is no factual basis for the executive to believe that a restriction he imposed was necessary.” Relying on Smith v. Avino (a widely cited Eleventh Circuit decision arising out of Hurricane Andrew), the state’s argument, in essence, is that the heightened judicial scrutiny that such invasions of civil liberties would usually provoke should be “suspended” for the duration of the emergency. The trial court agreed—upholding the group gathering ban because it met the very low bar of “good faith/some factual basis.”

Somewhat more controversially, the Fifth Circuit took a similar approach just this Tuesday in upholding Texas’s application of a coronavirus emergency order postponing “non-essential” medical procedures to abortions. Describing the Supreme Court’s 1905 ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts as imposing “the controlling standards, established by the Supreme Court over a century ago, for adjudging the validity of emergency measures,” the majority set aside Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey’s familiar (and far more recent) undue burden test in favor of a rule that “the scope of judicial authority to review rights-claims” during “a public health crisis” is limited to cases where “a statute purporting to have been enacted to protect the public health, the public morals, or the public safety, has no real or substantial relation to those objects, or is, beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.” Moreover, the court suggested that in a crisis, this minimal level of scrutiny applies equally to “one’s right to peaceably assemble, to publicly worship, to travel, and even to leave one’s home.”

       In an essay forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review Forum, we argue that the mitigation strategies adopted in response to the coronavirus pandemic highlight three central problems with the “suspension” approach to judicial review of crisis powers. First, like the Constitution’s explicit “suspension” power, which prohibits Congress from suspending the writ of habeas corpus “unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” the suspension principle adopted by judges in some crisis powers cases is inextricably linked to the idea that the crisis is of finite — and limited — duration. In Smith v. Avino, for example, the underlying crisis (Hurricane Andrew) was over by the time the challenged county-wide curfew was put into effect; the restriction on civil liberties was meant as a stopgap measure while the government restored order. The Fifth Circuit’s coronavirus abortion decision likewise characterizes Texas’s order as effectuating a “temporary loss of constitutional rights.” But in a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, when the restrictions are designed to slow the progress of the epidemic (and there might therefore be a relationship between the efficacy of the restrictions and the duration for which they will be needed), the stopgaps are potentially indefinite. Allowing for the suspension of more rigorous judicial review in such circumstances therefore risks allowing the exception to swallow the rule.

Second, and relatedly, the suspension model presupposes that “ordinary” judicial review will judge government actions in a crisis too harshly — and, in the process, risks handicapping the government’s response. Here, too, the coronavirus pandemic provides a useful (if still-unfolding) counterexample: Even if curtailments of liberty — from business closures to shelter-in-place orders to quarantine orders for travelers — are subjected to the normal scrutiny arising from comparable government incursions into civil liberties, they are likely to be upheld. Every level of government has an unquestionably compelling interest in preventing the spread of a highly contagious (and often lethal) disease. To similar effect, if that compelling interest can be reasonably vindicated through less restrictive measures that are equally available to the government at the same time, it hardly undermines the government’s response to require it to pursue them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the suspension model wholly discounts the independent checking function of courts in a crisis — as perhaps the only institution that is in any structural position to push back against potential overreaching by the local, state, or federal political branches. By subjecting government incursions on civil liberties to meaningful judicial review, courts force the government to do its homework — to communicate not only the purposes of its actions, but also how the imposed restrictions actually relate to and further those purposes. In the process, a robust judicial role may be indispensable not only in minimizing the loss of our liberties, but also in facilitating the development of a sustainable, long-term response to this crisis — and a body of law to guide public health legal preparedness for the next one.

Our focus is not only on how courts have already responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, we hope to help inform how courts approach the periodic easing and tightening of restrictions that will be necessary to balance mitigation of the coronavirus pandemic against liberties and livelihoods during the twelve to eighteen months it will likely take to develop a safe and effective vaccine. The scope and scale of these measures is and will be unprecedented, as is the intrusion on civil liberties that they will (and already do) represent. Many of these measures are also untested—both scientifically and legally.

As a country, we thus find ourselves in uncharted waters. But the debate over the proper judicial role in such novel and extraordinary circumstances is not a new one; rather, it dates to the earliest years of the Republic. As D.C. Circuit Chief Judge (and John Adams’ nephew) William Cranch wrote in 1807, “The constitution was made for times of commotion. . . . Dangerous precedents occur in dangerous times. It then becomes the duty of the judiciary calmly to poise the scales of justice, unmoved by the arm of power, undisturbed by the clamor of the multitude.” 213 years later, we aim to demonstrate how the coronavirus pandemic — and the governmental reactions thereto — undermine the suspension model, and, in the process, prove Cranch right.