A Rightful Place for Public Health in American Law

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 30 (2):302-304 (2002)
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Abstract

The practice of law has changed greatly since the days when judges based decisions on the maxim salus populi suprema lex, and Oliver Wendell Holmes disagreed, noting that “experience” has been the “life of the law.” In the intervening years, the profession has followed Holmes and the legal realists in recognizing that the law does not exist in a vacuum. It is a human endeavor, molded by experiences and filled with human consequences. Today, lawyers, jurists, and legal scholars everywhere on the political spectrum recognize the importance of social context, history, and a variety of non-legal disciplines, and non-legal insights to the intelligent practice of the law Unfortunately, in rejecting the old maxims, the legal profession also lost sight of the fundamental truth of salus populi suprema lex, Latin for “the health of the people is the highest law” - namely, it has lost sight of the truth that a population’s health is a critical part of law’s social context. One of the consequences of this is that the profession has failed to include public health - the study of the causes and prevention of disease, disability, and death in populations - among the non-legal disciplines regularly incorporated into legal analysis and routinely taught to all would-be lawyers. It is time to correct this oversight.

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