Supreme Court Decision-making
Jacobson brought charges against the State of Massachusetts claiming that a state law that authorized cities to require nationals to receive a vaccine against smallpox exceeded the power of the state (Walloch, 2015). Furthermore, he cited that the law requiring mandatory vaccination was a violation of the constitution, and infringed his personal freedom. The state of Massachusetts gave law enforcement agencies the power to mandate smallpox vaccines (Walloch, 2015). Faced with an outbreak of smallpox, the Cambridge city passed a law that required all individuals not vaccinated within a particular time period to be vaccinated (or to receive a new vaccination if they had been vaccinated a very long time ago), or be fined 5 dollars (Walloch, 2015). Jacobson declined to be vaccinated (apparently due to concerns about the safety of the vaccine), and also refused to pay the fine. The Supreme Court denied Jacobson’s claims and thus ruled in favor of the State of Massachusetts. According to this court, individual rights are not absolute, and states had the right to interfere with certain human rights to safeguard the health of the public, as long as it is reasonable.
Legal issues presented
So as to safeguard the health and safety of the public, does the state police’s scope encompass the authority to enact laws to do so? In this case, the Massachusetts police were given the authority to mandate small pox vaccines, and had arrested Jacobson for violating the state law that required individuals in the state to be vaccinated against smallpox. Therefore, the court sought to establish if the actions of the police were justified, and within their scope of work. Other legal issues that were raised were whether the safety of the public justified the restriction of personal liberty and whether it was enforceable by reasonable regulations. In particular, was vaccination a sensible means of control?
In order to protect the health and safety of the public, the scope of the power of the police at the state level encompasses authority to carry out reasonable rules to do so. The mode is within a state’s discretion, subject only to the stipulation that no rule that the state lays down, nor any rule that the local government agency adopts in an attempt to act under the authorization of state law, shall breach the U.S. Constitution (Walloch, 2015). A local law must at all times, surrender in case of conflict with the exercise by the overall government of any power it has under the constitution, or with any right given or secured by that instrument. Notably, the constitution safeguards the freedoms of each individual within its jurisdiction, but does not provide an absolute right for every individual to be free from restraint always, and in all situations (Walloch, 2015). Every individual is subject to a number of restraints for the common good. Cambridge’s actions are significantly related to the protection of the safety and health of the public.
In my opinion, the Jacobson case continues to be appropriate for resolving issues of individual rights vs. the public welfare. Constitutional law and law that pertain to public health have evolved to better safeguard health and human rights. The sovereign power of the state to make and enact all types of laws has not changed over the past 100 years. What has undergone some changes is the Court’s recognition of the need to enhance the common good of the public in a period where personal liberties are strongly advocated for (Nash & Williams, 2017). Preserving the health of the public in the twenty first century requires preserving public welfare. It is important to note that even though the Jacobson v. Massachusetts case occurred over a century ago, it continues to be used in many cases today, an indication of its importance and impact.
Nash, M., & Williams, A. (2017). Handbook of Public Protection. London, England:
Walloch, K. L. (2015). The Antivaccine Heresy: Jacobson V. Massachusetts and the
Troubled History of Compulsory Vaccination in the United States. Suffolk, England: Boydell & Brewer.