Can the Federal Gov’t Ban People From Traveling to a State?

Can the Federal Gov't Ban People From Traveling to a State?

(UnitedVoice.com) – Is it legal for the federal government to halt citizens’ travel from one state to another during the pandemic? Since March 2020, many states have enacted quarantine measures for those coming from another state. The courts have generally deferred to the states on these matters. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in Saenz v. Roe that travel rights are only violated when laws or rules “unreasonably burden or restrict” travel. However, self-quarantine rules during a pandemic are not unreasonable from a legal perspective.

On Wednesday, February 10, an unnamed White House official said the Biden administration was open to imposing domestic travel restrictions and specifically named Florida. It seems elected officials and health bureaucrats are still willing to push the boundaries of the Constitution. It brings into question whether it’s even Constitutionally permissible for the federal government to prohibit interstate travel.

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Over the last several days, concerns arose about a new COVID-19 variant in the Sunshine State that could hamper vaccination attempts. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) reacted passionately to the idea. He said any restrictions on travel to and from Florida are unconstitutional, “absurd,” and a political attack on the state. Florida is one of a few states that remains “open” and refuses to impose lockdowns on its citizens.

The governor added it’s ridiculous to impose travel restrictions when the administration is preparing to allow illegal immigrants to flood the southern border once again. President Biden is undoing Trump-era deals with Mexico and Central America that curbed the tide of illegal immigrants coming into the US. Many express concerns that illegal immigration could undo efforts in the US to contain COVID-19 as infected people could stream across the border and spread throughout the country.

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Is It Legal to Restrict Domestic Travel?

The 14th Amendment created what’s called the doctrine of the “right to travel.” Citizens have Constitutional rights to travel freely from one state to another. In the history of the United States, a president has never attempted to prevent travel from one state to another.

However, the Public Health Service Act (PHSA) does allow the federal government to issue regulations that prevent a disease from spreading across state lines. Fortunately, it’s never been used to quarantine a state. It has also never been tested in court under circumstances like COVID-19, where anyone leaving a state could be “reasonably believed” to carry the virus.

More to the point: How would one enforce a federal quarantine of a state? That would almost certainly require the military. Neither Homeland Security nor the Centers for Disease Control have the manpower to enforce such an action. In that case, it’s questionable whether the federal government could use the military due to the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA), which makes using the military to enforce federal law illegal.

If the federal government attempts to ban travel to and from a state and institute a federal quarantine, court actions will inevitably ensue. Not only will the courts need to wrestle with the 14th Amendment, but they’ll also have to deal with the Commerce Clause.

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Should Biden choose this option, it will have lasting effects on society and empower the federal government to grab more control over states’ rights. It will most certainly be an issue for the conservative Supreme Court to resolve.

Don Purdum, Independent Political Analyst

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