In 1949, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson asserted that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” His perspective reflected concerns of government officials throughout American history. The gist of his statement is that our constitutional protections often conflict and require balance in favor of healthy, non-violent existence; in giving priority to a greater constitutional good. No rights are absolute, let alone all of the time. I believe Justice Jackson’s statement goes to the heart of our conflict between government protection from Covid-19, an extremely dangerous virus, and people who claim that government enforcement of those same protections violates a constitutional right. These people use the “right” to justify ignoring the science that guides government protections.
The Founders were strong advocates of science. They used science in both framing the Constitution and planning the Republic. Science is often essential to constitutional guidance. It is a must in modern life. “Epidemiology” is the science we most immediately depend on for our protection from Covid-19. Epidemiologists are literally saving lives of those who follow their recommended protections. They are the ones whom responsible government officials turn to; who know that the protections also save lives of others. Wearing a face mask and doing social distancing is not that much to ask. Nor is it much to ask of employers, who have a legal obligation to protect employees and customers. When citizens refuse to adhere to the recommended protections, on the basis of some constitutional right, they simply enter into Justice Jackson’s metaphorical “suicide pact.”
David A. Shively