The Public Health Emergency Bench Book seeks to provide an educational tool for the Court to use should the community be confronted with a major health emergency. The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the emerging threat of pandemic influenza, and the risk of bioterrorism have heightened awareness of the need for public health legal preparedness, including preparing the courts for situations in which they may be called upon to enforce public health laws. In addition, it is hoped that the book will provide an impetus for the courts to examine their own processes to determine whether they are prepared to deal with operational issues that could arise due to the onset of a major health emergency.
The book discusses the authority of various public officials to prevent and respond to a public health emergency. State and local officials have overlapping authorities with regard to protecting public health and safety. The Governor and the heads of political subdivisions have authority to act during emergencies. The State Board of Health, the State Secretary of Health, the local boards of health, and the local health officers each have certain authority to protect public health. Some public health laws pertain to preventing a health emergency, such as by reporting and tracking communicable diseases. Other public health laws grant authority to health officials to control the spread of disease.
Control of a large communicable disease outbreak may require the implementation of "social distancing measures." Social distancing measures are intended to decrease contact among persons and thereby reduce the opportunities for spread of disease. Examples include closing schools and suspending large gatherings. Another example that could directly involve the courts is the imposition of isolation or quarantine. The book discusses the authority and procedures for implementing isolation and quarantine and the Court’s central role in the process. In addition, the book provides sample pleadings for the use of the courts and counsel. The book also discusses other more familiar procedures, such as habeas corpus and statutory writs, that might be invoked by parties in various proceedings to challenge government action or inaction to prevent or respond to a public health emergency.
Finally, the book addresses the operation of the courts amid a public health threat. The Court could be faced with many challenges, including how to conduct proceedings when the party’s presence in the courtroom presents a risk that the disease will spread, and how to continue the Court’s operations if the Court’s personnel, including judges and staff, become ill from a contagious disease.
The book is not intended to be an alarm. It is, however, intended to provoke thought, and to provide a resource for the Court and public agencies in preparing for the possibility of a major health emergency.