Judicial Review in Times of Emergency: from the Founding through the COVID-19 Pandemic
106 Pages Posted: 16 May 2023
Date Written: May 1, 2023
Whether deferring to President Lincoln’s blockade at the start of the Civil War, a state’s suspension of creditors’ remedies during the Great Depression, or President’s Roosevelt’s evacuation and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in the West during World War II, the Supreme Court has regularly permitted the political branches wide discretion to manage national emergencies, even in ways that during peacetime would be viewed as flouting the Constitution. Although there have been a handful of exceptions to this practice, the result has been the same: For all practical purposes, the United States Constitution has meant something different in times of emergency.
In several recent cases, however, an emerging Supreme Court majority has applied increasingly rigorous scrutiny to government regulations predicated upon public health, most notably where they intersect with the exercise of religion, but also in the area of property rights and separation of powers. The Court’s propensity to be so active of late should revive debates over the role of the Constitution in times of emergency and the attendant role of the judiciary during the same.
This article explores the role of the Constitution and judicial review during times of emergency, spanning American history up to and including the Court’s recent orders made in the context of the pandemic, while surveying debates on either side of the competing visions that emerge. Then, after criticizing the Court’s inconsistent approach to its role during the pandemic and acknowledging that many may find fault in its merits assessments of certain cases, the article contends that the application in some recent cases of normal standards of judicial scrutiny during times of emergency should be viewed as a welcome development. The Court’s recent decisions suggest we have traveled some distance in rejecting the prosecution’s argument at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators that the Constitution is “only the law of peace, not of war.” But, as will also be shown, we still have a considerable way to go.
Keywords: judicial review, emergencies, emergency power, separation of powers
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