Public Health :: New Bench Book helps judges make speedy decisions about pressing public health cases

What if there was an outbreak of avian flu in Pennsylvania and public health officials had to institute quarantines to stop the spread of the deadly disease? How would the state?s courts respond if someone resisted or challenged a quarantine in court, particularly since no Pennsylvania case law, statute or court ruling has ever established specifically who can petition a court to institute a quarantine or what procedures to follow to do so?

These are just a few of the critically important questions on the minds of people who plan for events such as a pandemic or a bioterrorist attack. To give judges and their legal staff some guidance on cases like this and many other thorny issues that may come before them in a public health emergency, the University of Pittsburgh?s Center for Public Health Preparedness (UPCPHP), in conjunction with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), today released a report titled Pennsylvania Public Health Law Bench Book.

The Bench Book was co-developed by UPCPHP and AOPC staff, who spent more than a year synthesizing information from Pennsylvania public health and federal statutes and case law. UPCPHP is part of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH). The AOPC is the administrative office of the Pennsylvania courts, including the State Supreme Court.

Although this is not the first publication to take a comprehensive look at legal cases with public health implications, it is the first to make the information user-friendly to judges and their clerks, according to Patricia Sweeny, J.D., M.P.H., R.N., assistant professor, GSPH, the principal investigator on the project and one of the authors. ?What makes this bench book unique is that it presents information relevant to today?s public health issues in a relatively compact, easily accessible format that judges and clerks can use as a reference tool. It will help them to quickly and efficiently make decisions about public health issues based on prior precedence, possibly saving lives in the process,? she explained.

The Bench Book is divided into three major sections. The first contains a set of public health law ?Bench Guides,? which provide concise responses to key questions that will arise when specific public health issues come before the court. The second part provides analysis and background information on some of the legal issues judges may be called on to consider. The third and final section contains a glossary of public health related terms, model orders for public health cases and a table of cases cited in the report. The bench book also comes in CD format that is searchable, and all material is hyperlinked to original sources.

Although the Bench Book is written for Pennsylvania judges, Ms. Sweeney said the writers drew on the work being done in other states to address problems and issues that are national in scope. As a result, she and her collaborators believe it will be useful for judges around the country who are committed to preserving the rule of law in the face of unprecedented challenges presented by outbreaks of disease, natural disasters and acts of terrorism.

?The issues dealt with in the Bench Book are universal in terms of the types of legal scenarios that are likely to occur in a public health emergency. It can be valuable as a resource guide not only for Pennsylvania judges but for judges throughout the United States who may be asked to rule on public health-related cases,? added Ms. Sweeney, who also is the UPCPHP law program co-director.

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