October 30, 2014, was a picturesque fall day in New England, Chief Judge of the Maine District Courts Charles LaVerdiere recalls. The day was “shattered” when he received a call that the state filed a petition to quarantine a nurse returning from ebola-stricken West Africa. The nurse planned to attend a large social function that evening, so Chief Judge LaVerdiere needed to decide quickly whether to allow the quarantine.
“I was forced to make a life-or-death decision immediately. No decision was, in fact, a decision with potentially deadly consequences,” he told the 150 or so attendees at the National Pandemic Summit last week in Omaha, Nebraska.
Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican hosted the summit, which was held at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, home to the country’s largest biocontainment unit and which treated three ebola patients in 2014. The summit brought court leaders, public health officials, legislators, and executive branch officials together to start a collective conversation on how states need to plan and prepare for a pandemic, which often includes quarantines that raise many potential legal issues. Twenty-five states and three territories sent teams. The summit, the first-of-its-kind, was funded through a grant from the State Justice Institute and staffed by the National Center for State Courts.
It was long overdue, Chief Justice Heavican and others said. Quarantine laws and statutes in many states have not been updated or tested since the influenza outbreak of 1918, which killed about 50 million people worldwide, including more than 675,000 Americans.
As for Chief Judge LaVerdiere’s 2014 decision, he determined that Maine had not met its burden of proof. He denied the quarantine. The court did require cooperation with monitoring and placed limits on travel. Everything turned out well, but a lot of “what ifs” went unanswered, underlining the need for the summit and other pandemic planning efforts.
“That situation taught me a lot of lessons, most importantly to have plans and prepare before it happens,” said Chief Judge LaVerdiere, who is now retired.
Click here to read the presentations and for more information about the Pandemic Summit.
In the latest edition of NCSC's podcast, Court Talk, criminal defense attorney Jerry Buting, made famous from Netflix’s documentary mega hit Making a Murderer, talks about life after the Steven Avery trial. Buting also discusses how true-crime documentaries help “lift the lid off the black boxes” in the courts, and the importance of judicial education when it comes to the validity of forensic science. Tune in here.