Jacobson v. Massachusetts did not uphold the state’s power to mandate vaccinations.
At Verdict, Mike Dorf considers whether the state and federal governments could require people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He writes that the leading precedent is Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905).
Could government mandate vaccination for people who lack valid medical reasons why a generally safe and effective vaccine would pose an unacceptably high health risk for them? A 1905 Supreme Court opinion—Jacobson v. Massachusetts—says yes.
The law at issue in Jacobson did not impose a vaccine mandate. Rather, people who refused to receive the smallpox vaccine had to pay a $5 fine. (About $150 in present-day value). And the failure to pay the fine would result in a jail sentence. But the state lacked the power to jab a syringe in the offender’s arm. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court observed, “[i]f a person should deem it important that vaccination should not be performed in his case, and the authorities should think otherwise, it is not in their pow
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