With the recent Ebola scare and uptick in measles cases in the United States, the proper role of the government in responding to public health threats has been much debated in recent months. The measures and policies that government officials implement in response to contagious diseases must be consistent with the substantive due process protections dictated by the U.S. Constitution. This article gives a brief primer on the applicable precedent and constitutional principles governing public health responses to outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Much of the case law on the constitutionality of public health regulations, particularly relating to mandatory vaccination and quarantine, is over 50 years old. This largely is a result of the decrease in widespread pandemics in recent decades. Accordingly, the precedential value of this case law is questionable, particularly when considering substantive due process developments in the past 50 years. However, these cases establish a lasting principle of strong deference to state actions, as well as some important limiting factors.