A U.S. District judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed last month challenging the constitutionality of New York’s legally required 14-day quarantine mandate for travelers from states with a high coronavirus infection rate.
Judge David N. Hurd of Utica ruled Tuesday that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s June 25 executive order requiring travelers from 31 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands does not violate a citizen’s constitutional right to travel.
Gov. Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Govs. Philip D. Murphy, D-N.J. and Ned M. Lamont, D-Conn., imposed a tri-state order at midnight June 25 mandating a 14-day self-quarantine for travelers who arrive in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut from states with more than a 10% positive coronavirus test rate, or a positive test rating higher than 10 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day average.
The suit, filed July 1, in U.S. District Court, Utica, by plaintiff Cynthia Page of Arizona, alleges the defendants, Cuomo and state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker, violated her constitutional right to travel by imposing the quarantine mandate. On July 9, Page moved to preliminarily enjoin the defendants’ continued enforcement of the mandate.
Hurd’s dismissal of Page’s claims hinges on case law from 1905. During the 1902 smallpox outbreak in the Massachusetts city of Cambridge, municipal health officials ordered all citizens to be vaccinated to curb the spread of the disease. Hurd wrote the health officials were acting harmoniously with a Massachusetts state law empowering them to mandate vaccinations if deemed necessary “for the public health or safety.” The plaintiff in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), Henning Jacobson, refused to be vaccinated, insisting he had a 14th Amendment right “to care for his own body and health in such a way as to him seems best.” He was fined $5 by the state of Massachusetts for the trouble.
Jacobson’s constitutional challenge made its way to the Supreme Court, which rejected his claim.
Courts across the country have relied on this case law to analyze various emergency public health measures put in place in order to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Hurd further stated in his decision to dismiss Page’s case that those entering New York from a state on the quarantine mandate list are more than free to enter New York, but they must comply with the mandate after they arrive. The quarantine mandate does not discriminate against non-residents, as the same mandate is imposed on New Yorkers arriving home from states on the mandate list.
“The State is not drawing distinction between residents and non-residents but between individuals with and without a mathematically heightened risk of spreading COVID-19,” Hurd said.
As stated in her complaint, Page had planned to fly to Brooklyn for a few weeks to help a friend pack up belongings in a home preparing to be sold. As the plaintiff was about to purchase her plane ticket for her two-week trip, the governor issued his executive order alongside Govs. Murphy and Lamont. Arizona was then, and still is, on the list of states included in the quarantine mandate. She therefore had to cancel her plans.
She further stated in her complaint that due to work and family obligations, she was unable to extend her stay in New York to fulfill the 14-day self-quarantine.
Page stated this “was and continues to be very upsetting.” She continued on in her complaint to say she was “excited to go to New York,” and believed it was her “last chance to see the sights of New York City with (her friends).” No one else was available to help pack up her friend’s home, resulting in her friend’s moving plans being put on indefinite hold.
The plaintiff equates the state’s quarantine mandate to house arrest, stating the order is “arbitrary, capricious, and irrational.”
Page’s three-count complaint claims the quarantine mandate violates her right to travel freely between states, which she alleges is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Equal Protection Clause, the citizenship clauses of the 14th Amendment and Article IV, as well as the Due Process Clause.
The defendants responded to Page’s claims, stating the quarantine mandate is constitutional “under the deferential standard that applies to the governmental measures designed to address an ongoing public health emergency.”
Hurd, citing more case law, said the right to travel is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, but it is “undoubtedly fundamental.” Citing United States v. Guest (1966), “Freedom to travel throughout the United States has long been recognized as a basic right under the Constitution.” Hurd cites former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Potter Stewart’s explanation of this in Guest, stating this omission from the Constitution is “almost certainly” a result of the fact that “the drafters thought of it as such a basic and fundamental right that it did not need to be reduced to writing.”
The nature of the right to travel is not itself sufficient enough to warrant preliminary relief from the state’s quarantine mandate, Hurd wrote. Someone seeking preliminary relief must demonstrate four points, one of which is the likelihood of irreparable harm, and the one Hurd continually referred to in his 25-page decision.
Page’s previously mentioned claims made in her complaint, which she views as harmful, are “hardly cognizable as harm, let alone irreparable harm sufficient to justify preliminary relief” from the mandate, Hurd wrote.
Page stated she does not have COVID-19 and has not been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.
Though citing it as precedent throughout his decision, Hurd wrote that the Jacobson decision is “old law.”
In his conclusion, Hurd elaborated on this point further, stating that while it is strange to rely on a Supreme Court decision from more than a century ago, he has no other choice than to view Jacobson as the standard when ruling on such matters.
“Jacobson was decided just after the turn of the last century, at a time when medical science was in its adolescence if not still in its infancy. Because it endorses an approach to constitutional analysis that has fallen out of fashion, it is admittedly strange — and even a little alarming — to discover that Jacobson is still considered the right tool for evaluating state action taken to protect public health,” he said.
“Yet unless and until the Supreme Court revisits Jacobson and fashions a test that demands a more particularized showing from public health officials in light of the unbelievable medical achievements of the twenty-first century, it remains a complete roadblock to Page’s claims.”