It seems like something out of a Hollywood movie such as “I am Legend” or “2012.”
How should judges, lawyers, and public health officials respond to a chemical weapon attack? What happens if a mass terrorist attack forces a quarantine, large-scale evacuations, or the slaughter of private animals? Those are the questions that a new doomsday manual put out by the New York state court system and the state bar association hopes to answer.
The manual’s title, “New York State Public Health Legal Manual,” may be boring but the subject matter is not. The book doesn’t mandate new law but encourages officials to think through the application of current rules and regulations when it comes to apocalyptic situations.
“It is a very grim read,” Ronald P. Younkins, the chief of operations for the state court system, told the New York Times. “This is for potentially very grim situations in which difficult decisions have to be made.”
The Times explains:
The manual provides a catalog of potential terrorism nightmares, like smallpox, anthrax or botulism episodes. It notes that courts have recognized far more rights over the past century or so than existed at the time of Typhoid Mary’s troubles. It details procedures for assuring that people affected by emergency rules get hearings and lawyers. It mentions that in the event of an attack, officials can control traffic, communications and utilities. If they expect an attack, it says, they can compel mass evacuations.
But the guide also presents a sober rendition of what the realities might be in dire times. The suspension of laws, it says, is subject to constitutional rights. But then it adds, “This should not prove to be an obstacle, because federal and state constitutional restraints permit expeditious actions in emergency situations.”
When there is not enough medicine for everyone in an emergency, it notes, there is no clear legal guidepost. It suggests legal decisions would most likely involve an analysis that “balances the obligation to save the greatest number of lives against the obligation to care for each single patient,” perhaps giving preference to those with the best chance to survive. It points out, though, that elderly and disabled people might have a legal claim if they are discriminated against at such moments of crisis.
“In its matter-of-fact way, it conjures an image of the courts muddling through in an apocalyptic city,” the Times goes on to say, before mentioning the manual’s instructions that in the event of a chemical attack court officials might need to use respirators in the courtroom.
“In today’s world, we face many natural and man-made catastrophic threats, including the very real possibility of a global influenza outbreak or other public health emergency that could infect millions of people,” New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman writes in the manual’s forward.
“While it is impossible to predict the timing or severity of the next public health emergency, our government has a responsibility to anticipate and prepare for such events.”
The manual is available for download, or can be purchased as a hard copy for $18.