On October 6, State Sen. Tony Hwang published an opinion article about vaccine mandates. In this piece, Senator Hwang claims that vaccine mandates “seem to violate the due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Although Senator Hwang acknowledges the legal precedent for vaccine mandates established by the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), he argues that the decision is “jarring and contrary today because of the pro-choice/body rights revolution in 20th century American law.”
According to Hwang, high-profile Supreme Court cases decided after Jacobson, including Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), Loving v. Virginia (1967), Roe v. Wade (1973), United States v. Stanley (1987), and Washington v. Harper (1990), “limits the power of the state to touch the body.”
Senator Hwang is, of course, correct when he notes that case law has evolved since Jacobson. During the 20th century, the Supreme Court recognized that the due process clause provides a constitutional right to privacy that extends to medical decision-making. However, Senator Hwang’s argument that vaccine mandates violate due process rights is dubious at best, and his article contains misleading legal assertions about Supreme Court precedent.
Federal courts have repeatedly acknowledged the viability of the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, referencing Jacobson, noted that the right to privacy in medical decision-making is not absolute and must be balanced against important state interests like preserving public health.
Washington v. Harper also balances the right to privacy with state interests. In Washington, the Supreme Court held that the due process clause allows the state to treat a prison inmate with antipsychotic drugs against his will. While the majority acknowledged that there is a “liberty interest in being free from arbitrary administration of medication,” they ultimately found that the forcible administration of antipsychotic medication comported with due process requirements because it was “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
COVID-19 vaccine mandates have also survived recent legal challenges. In August, U.S. District Judge Jeffery Meyer dismissed a complaint filed against the University of Connecticut’s vaccine mandate. Furthermore, both the Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, have dismissed legal challenges to COVID-19 vaccine mandates brought by employees of New York City public schools under the due process clause.
I admire Senator Hwang’s support for the COVID-19 vaccine. Unlike many members of the Republican party, Senator Hwang has consistently affirmed his belief in the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. However, his legal arguments against vaccine mandates don’t hold up under scrutiny.
Kelsey Mullane lives in Branford.
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