Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)
A state may enact a compulsory vaccination law, since the legislature has the discretion to decide whether vaccination is the best way to prevent smallpox and protect public health. The legislature may exempt children from the law without violating the equal protection rights of adults if the law applies equally among adults.
A Massachusetts law provided that the board of health of a city or town may require and enforce vaccination and revaccination of its inhabitants, while providing them with a way to get free vaccinations. The state imposed a $5 fine for people over 21 who violated this law, although it provided an exception for children with a doctor's certificate stating that they are not fit for vaccination. The city of Cambridge adopted a regulation requiring all of its inhabitants who were not vaccinated against smallpox in the last five years to be vaccinated or revaccinated. (This was based on the increasing presence of smallpox in the city.) A certain physician was authorized to enforce the vaccination policy. The plaintiff in this case was an individual over 21 who refused to comply with the vaccination requirement and then faced a criminal complaint. He was found guilty and fined, and the court ordered him held in custody until the fine was paid.Opinions
- John Marshall Harlan (Author)
- Melville Weston Fuller
- Henry Billings Brown
- Edward Douglass White
- Joseph McKenna
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
- William Rufus Day
Harlan ruled that the vaccination law did not violate the 14th Amendment because the police power of the state may be allowed to constrain individual liberties through reasonable regulations when required to protect public safety. He reasoned that individual liberty does not allow people to take actions regardless of the harm that they could cause to others. Harlan felt that the plaintiff had failed to show that the vaccination law was arbitrary or oppressive, or not reasonably required for the safety of the public. He noted the increasing presence of smallpox, which prevented the plaintiff from convincingly asserting that the rule had no real or substantial relation to protecting public health and safety. Although the plaintiff presented evidence that some doctors believed that the smallpox vaccine was not effective and could cause further diseases, Harlan pointed out that the opposite view represents the common medical belief and is followed by more reputable doctors. Although he largely deferred to the legislature, Harlan noted that requiring a vaccination for certain people with certain health conditions would be cruel and inhumane. This would justify a court in shielding them from the enforcement of the law. The Massachusetts law did not suggest that it would lead to this result, though, and the plaintiff did not show that he had a medical condition that made him unfit for vaccination.
- David Josiah Brewer (Author)
- Rufus Wheeler Peckham (Author)
Since Harlan sought to balance the police power of the state with individual liberties, later judges would refer to his opinion to support either side of the debate. The Supreme Court has continued to follow his reasoning. This case became more prominent during the COVID-19 era, when it has been used to support shelter-in-place orders and mask mandates. The Supreme Court also denied an injunction to plaintiffs who were seeking to block a vaccine mandate for health care workers in Maine.
U.S. Supreme CourtJacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)
Jacobson v. Massachusetts
Argued December 6, 1904
Decided February 20, 1905
197 U.S. 11
The United States does not derive any of its substantive powers from the Preamble of the Constitution. It cannot exert any power to secure the declared objects of the Constitution unless, apart from the Preamble, such power be found in, or can properly be implied from, some express delegation in the instrument.
While the spirit of the Constitution is to be respected not less than its letter, the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words.
While the exclusion of evidence in the state court in a case involving the constitutionality of a state statute may not strictly present a Federal question, this court may consider the rejection of such evidence upon the ground of incompetency or immateriality under the statute as showing its scope and meaning in the opinion of the state court.
The police power of a State embraces such reasonable regulations relating to matters completely within its territory, and not affecting the people of other States, established directly by legislative enactment, as will protect the public health and safety.
While a local regulation, even if based on the acknowledged police power of a State, must always yield in case of conflict with the exercise by the General Government of any power it possesses under the Constitution, the mode or manner of exercising its police power is wholly within the discretion of the State so long as the Constitution of the United States is not contravened, or any right granted or secured thereby is not infringed, or not exercised in such an arbitrary and oppressive manner as to justify the interference of the courts to prevent wrong and oppression.
The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint, nor is it an element in such liberty that one person, or a minority of persons residing in any community and enjoying the benefits of its local government, should have power to dominate the majority when supported in their action by the authority of the State.
It is within the police power of a State to enact a compulsory vaccination law, and it is for the legislature, and not for the courts, to determine
in the first instance whether vaccination is or is not the best mode for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of the public health.
There being obvious reasons for such exception, the fact that children, under certain circumstances, are excepted from the operation of the law does not deny the equal protection of the laws to adults if the statute is applicable equally to all adults in like condition.
The highest court of Massachusetts not having held that the compulsory vaccination law of that State establishes the absolute rule that an adult must be vaccinated even if he is not a fit subject at the time or that vaccination would seriously injure his health or cause his death, this court holds that, as to an adult residing in the community, and a fit subject of vaccination, the statute is not invalid as in derogation of any of the rights of such person under the Fourteenth Amendment.
This case involves the validity, under the Constitution of the United States, of certain provisions in the statutes of Massachusetts relating to vaccination.
The Revised Laws of that Commonwealth, c. 75, § 137, provide that
"the board of health of a city or town if, in its opinion, it is necessary for the public health or safety shall require and enforce the vaccination and revaccination of all the inhabitants thereof and shall provide them with the means of free vaccination. Whoever, being over twenty-one years of age and not under guardianship, refuses or neglects to comply with such requirement shall forfeit five dollars."
An exception is made in favor of "children who present a certificate, signed by a registered physician that they are unfit subjects for vaccination." § 139.
Proceeding under the above statutes, the Board of Health of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the twenty-seventh day of February, 1902, adopted the following regulation:
"Whereas, smallpox has been prevalent to some extent in the city of Cambridge and still continues to increase; and whereas it is necessary for the speedy extermination of the disease that all persons not protected by vaccination should be vaccinated, and whereas, in the opinion of the board, the public health and safety require the vaccination or revaccination of all the inhabitants of Cambridge; be it ordered, that
all the inhabitants of the city who have not been successfully vaccinated since March 1, 1897, be vaccinated or revaccinated."
Subsequently, the Board adopted an additional regulation empowering a named physician to enforce the vaccination of persons as directed by the Board at its special meeting of February 27.
The above regulations being in force, the plaintiff in error, Jacobson, was proceeded against by a criminal complaint in one of the inferior courts of Massachusetts. The complaint charged that, on the seventeenth day of July, 1902, the Board of Health of Cambridge, being of the opinion that it was necessary for the public health and safety, required the vaccination and revaccination of all the inhabitants thereof who had not been successfully vaccinated since the first day of March, 1897, and provided them with the means of free vaccination, and that the defendant, being over twenty-one years of age and not under guardianship, refused and neglected to comply with such requirement.
The defendant, having been arraigned, pleaded not guilty. The government put in evidence the above regulations adopted by the Board of Health, and made proof tending to show that its chairman informed the defendant that, by refusing to be vaccinated, he would incur the penalty provided by the statute, and would be prosecuted therefor; that he offered to vaccinate the defendant without expense to him, and that the offer was declined, and defendant refused to be vaccinated.
The prosecution having introduced no other evidence, the defendant made numerous offers of proof. But the trial court ruled that each and all of the facts offered to be proved by the defendant were immaterial, and excluded all proof of them.
The defendant, standing upon his offers of proof and introducing no evidence, asked numerous instructions to the jury, among which were the following:
That section 137 of chapter 75 of the Revised Laws of Massachusetts was in derogation of the rights secured to the defendant by the Preamble to the Constitution of the United
States, and tended to subvert and defeat the purposes of the Constitution as declared in its Preamble;
That the section referred to was in derogation of the rights secured to the defendant by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and especially of the clauses of that amendment providing that no State shall make or enforce any law abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws; and
That said section was opposed to the spirit of the Constitution.
Each of the defendant's prayers for instructions was rejected, and he duly excepted. The defendant requested the court, but the court refused, to instruct the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. And the court instructed the jury, in substance, that, if they believed the evidence introduced by the Commonwealth and were satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of the offense charged in the complaint, they would be warranted in finding a verdict of guilty. A verdict of guilty was thereupon returned.
The case was then continued for the opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. That court overruled all the defendant's exceptions, sustained the action of the trial court, and thereafter, pursuant to the verdict of the jury, he was sentenced by the court to pay a fine of five dollars. And the court ordered that he stand committed until the fine was paid.