Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC), state governments, and not the federal government, have most of the power to place people in isolation or quarantine under certain circumstances. But in some cases, federal and state officials have overlapping roles.

The difference between an isolation and quarantine situation is important. Isolation separates people known to be ill from those who people who are not sick, says the CDC. Quarantine separates and also restricts the movement of people exposed to a contagious disease, but not yet ill, to see if they become sick.

In 2014, the Congressional Research Service wrote about quarantines and the federal Constitution when there were concerns about the Ebola virus. In general, the Research Service said the power to take quarantine measures is reserved to the states under the 10th Amendment. In 1824, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden drew a clear line between the federal government and the state governments when it came to regulating activities within and between states.

Marshall’s reasoning set the precedent that police powers are reserved to states for activities within their borders (with some exceptions). Those police powers include the ability to impose isolation and quarantine conditions. Marshall wrote that quarantine laws “form a portion of that immense mass of legislation which embraces everything within the territory of a State not surrendered to the General Government.”

Constitutional powers and issues during a quarantine situation

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