Maine nurse vows to sue to lift Ebola quarantine: How will she fare in court?

Nurse Kaci Hickox says she will take the state of Maine to court over attempts to quarantine her for 21 days. Does her stand strike a blow for science or could it make Ebola hysteria worse?

University of Texas at Arlington/AP
Nurse Kaci Hickox, who returned to the US after helping treat patients diagnosed with Ebola in West Africa, has vowed to sue if Maine doesn't lift a 21-day quarantine against her.

Nurse Kaci Hickox has vowed to fight an Ebola quarantine that she says violates her rights, becoming the focal point of America's controversial response to the disease.

But, while she has received the support of health-care organizations, it's not clear how her case will fare in court.

The nurse, who has not been diagnosed with Ebola or treated for any symptoms, spent four weeks helping care for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with the organization Doctors Without Borders. She flew back to New Jersey on Friday, where she was quarantined for three days in an isolation tent. Under significant outside pressure – including from President Obama – New Jersey officials released Ms. Hickox Monday. She then traveled back to her home state of Maine, where she was placed under quarantine again.

"I truly believe this [quarantine] policy is not scientifically or constitutionally just," Hickox said in an interview on the "Today" show Wednesday morning. "I am not a risk to the American public."

Also on Wednesday, Doctors Without Borders expressed their support for the nurse in a statement, calling the quarantine measures "excessive."

Hickox has said if Maine does not lift the quarantine by Thursday, she will challenge it in court.

The state, meanwhile, said it will seek legal authority to enforce the quarantine.

"We hoped that the healthcare worker would voluntarily comply with these protocols, but this individual has stated publicly she will not abide by the protocols," Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement on the governor's website. "We are very concerned about her safety and health and that of the community. ... While we certainly respect the rights of one individual, we must be vigilant in protecting 1.3 million Mainers, as well as anyone who visits our great state."

In terms of legal precedents, there are several cases of state and federal governments enforcing quarantines on people in emergency situations. A case that has been frequently cited this week is Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where the US Supreme Court in 1905 upheld the commonwealth's compulsory vaccination law, which called for resisters to be thrown in jail, saying that personal liberties could be suspended given outside circumstances.

"As a legal matter, it’s almost impossible to find a case that has successfully challenged whether someone who has been exposed [to an infectious disease] should be quarantined," says Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at Northwestern University.

There is, however, less direct precedent on challenges to the permissible scope and circumstances of quarantine – and this is where Hickox could find the most success should her case go to court in Maine, according to legal experts.

"There have indeed been a few cases here of people who have challenged [the nature] of their confinement," Professor Kontorovich adds, "but those were much harsher conditions where people were quarantined by being put in jail, or quarantined with other infected people."

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