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Jacobson v. Massachusetts: How a 1905 Court Case May Determine the Legality of Vaccine Mandates

Close up of doctor's hands vaccinating child
By Ashley Ravid | Last updated on

Though half of the country is now fully vaccinated, the United States continues to struggle against an anti-COVID-19 vaccination movement. As more employers, universities, businesses, and localities are requiring proof of vaccination before community interaction, legal challenges to vaccine mandates have arisen, dragging one Supreme Court case from over a century ago back into the spotlight.

Case Background

In 1905, citizens of the United States struggled with a different epidemic from the one we face today: smallpox.

Luckily, a vaccine had been invented, and under Massachusetts law, local municipalities could enforce compulsory free vaccinations for adults when deemed necessary to protect public health. Individuals older than 21 who did not receive their vaccines could be fined, though exceptions were made for children who had a valid doctor's note exempting them for medical reasons.

Cambridge chose to take advantage of this law and mandate inoculation during an outbreak of smallpox, declaring that "the public health and safety require the vaccination or revaccination of all the inhabitants of Cambridge."

Resident Henning Jacobson, however, refused the vaccine for himself and his son, claiming that they had bad reactions to previous vaccinations. In response, he was prosecuted and fined $5. His case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it set the precedent that may affect COVID-19 vaccination mandates today.

In his defense, Jacobson stated that forcing them to receive the smallpox injection would violate the spirit of the Constitution and infringe upon his liberty. His claim was based on the Constitution's Preamble, which states:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Jacobson also alleged 14th Amendment violations, particularly the Equal Protection clause, which establishes that the laws of the nation should apply to all citizens equally.

SCOTUS Decision

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the preamble, as Jacobson claimed, did convey the spirit of the law. However, they decided that the actual letter of the law was not violated, and, therefore, the vaccine mandate was not a constitutional violation of Jacobson's liberty.

In a 7-2 majority, the justices held that the mandate also did not violate the 14th Amendment, because medical exemptions were available for qualifying children. Though no adults were exempted, the court ruled that because it was the government's duty to protect public health, and because the mandate applied to all adults equally, it did not violate the Equal Protection clause.

Jacobson's conviction for failing to get the vaccine and $5 fine were upheld.

What Jacobson Means for COVID-19

Predicting SCOTUS outcomes is never an exact science, so it is possible that legal challenges to any vaccine mandates may have unforeseen outcomes. But Supreme Court decisions often rely on past precedent to determine current-day cases, which means that if they have ruled on a similar case in the past, they will often use the same reasoning to justify a present decision.

So although some states are enacting legislation that will make vaccine mandates illegal, the precedent from Jacobson v. Com. of Massachusetts means that, in the interest of protecting public health from the coronavirus, these new laws may not hold up if challenged.

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