“All law is health law.” Charity Scott, founding director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University College of Law, has said this many times throughout her distinguished career in health law. With more than 200,000 deaths in the United States, the legal issues arising from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic underscore the truth of this statement.
The outbreak has implicated all areas of the law – constitutional law, business law, employment law, family law, education, housing, and even criminal law. Georgia State Law faculty members have responded to the pandemic’s legal issues through policy development, research and advocacy. These are but a few of the many examples.
In March, state and local city and county governments began imposing “stay-at-home” orders and restrictions on public gatherings to combat the spread of disease. Some churches challenged the orders as violating first amendment religious freedoms. In the article, “Forced Closing of Houses of Worship During the Coronavirus: Both Legal and Right,” Eric Segall, Kathy and Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law, and his co-author explained the constitutional support for including religious services in bans on large gatherings: “Not only is it perfectly legal during this crisis under both state and federal law to apply general closure laws that are devastating millions of Americans in many different settings to houses of worship; it is obviously the right thing to do for the American people.”
New to Georgia State Law, assistant professor Anthony Kreis also tackled constitutional issues in his article, “Contagion and the Right to Travel.” State travel restrictions on short-term visitors or requiring travelers to quarantine raises dormant commerce clause questions. “[T]he permissibility of public health orders from state officials restricting the movement of interstate travelers in a pandemic should be weighed against the characteristics of the disease, the reasonability of the covered jurisdiction(s), and the relative treatment of nonresidents versus residents,” he stated.
Several Georgia municipalities, including the City of Atlanta, issued mask mandates this summer. Governor Brian Kemp challenged these mandates as contradicting his state-wide orders. Clark Cunningham, W. Lee Burge Chair of Law and Ethics, spoke to Time and other media outlets on the lawsuit. The Governor’s emergency powers, said Cunningham, give him the authority to “take action to protect the health, safety and welfare of Georgia’s residents and visitors to ensure COVID-19 remains controlled throughout the State.” Preventing the City of Atlanta from having a more protective order than the State, may defy that authority, particularly when the virus remains uncontrolled.
With the easing of restrictions, business owners have expressed concern over liability for customers or employees who may be exposed to the virus while at their establishments. Distinguished University Professor Timothy Lytton was quoted in a variety of news outlets, including the Huffington Post, WSB, Legal Examiner and LA Times. He laid out his argument in both the Conversation and the Regulatory Review, stating that it would be extremely difficult to hold a business liable for an individual contracting COVID-19, unless that business had not acted with reasonable care. “Immunity from liability could actually encourage businesses to be less cautious in preventing COVID-19 transmission,” he warned.
COVID-19 has exacerbated health disparities faced by underserved communities. Center for Access to Justice director, Lauren Sudeall, and Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth professor John Marshall, along with their co-authors, wrote “Towards an Emergency Housing Response to COVID-19 in Georgia,” arguing that housing stability is critical for public health, economic resilience and protection of children. Among other things, they pushed for an extension of moratoria on foreclosures and evictions. Sudeall also co-authored “Courts in Crisis: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Eviction Court in Georgia,” describing Georgia’s decentralized court system and varying response to the Georgia Supreme Court’s emergency order suspending non-essential court functions. The fragmented policies mean that tenants across the state may be treated differently during and post-pandemic, and all parties may find the eviction process difficult to navigate.
In her chapter on housing in “Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19,” a report produced by Public Health Law Watch, associate professor Courtney Anderson cautioned that short-term fixes alone are not enough: “These individuals face challenges other than housing, and their race and socioeconomic status puts them at greater risk for health inequities.” At the federal level, in addition to amending the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, she recommended amendments to the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act and Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act. Recommendations at the state level included providing support for high speed internet and utilities.
Susan Goico Walker, adjunct professor, director of the Olmstead Disability Clinic, and director of the Disability Integration Project at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, collaborated with stakeholders statewide on an open letter to Governor Kemp. With the support of 11 organizations comprising the Georgia Developmental Disability Network, the letter urged steps Georgia should take, stating, “Every effort must be extended to ensure the protection of the civil rights of people with disabilities, who should not be discriminated against medically or socially during this difficult time.”
These and other legal issues were topics addressed by Public Health Law Watch’s COVID Legal Briefings series and included in their report. The Law Section of the American Public Health Association co-sponsored the video series. Stacie Kershner (J.D. ’08), associate director of the Center for Law, Health & Society and program planner for the Law Section, assisted with communication for these events and has organized a special panel session at the upcoming APHA Annual Meeting featuring several of the national public health law experts.
The diversity of the Georgia State Law faculty’s involvement and expertise in response to COVID-19 highlights the array of legal issues set in motion by the pandemic. It underscores that all law is health law in a public health crisis of this magnitude, spanning disciplines and jurisdictions. Yet, a common theme has emerged: an effective public health response depends on advancing justice in all spheres of society.