Constitutional Foundations for Public Health Practice: Key Terms and Principles

Originally published by Springer (2021).


This chapter introduces the structure of the government in the United States and the concept of “separation of powers" among the federal, state, and local governments. It introduces core legal principles from the U.S. Constitution that frame the authority of the government to enact and enforce laws to protect and promote the public's health. These Constitutional principles are essential for the health advocate and leader to understand because every federal, state, and local law must comply with them. The core principles include the enumerated powers of the federal government and the broad plenary powers of state and local governments—which we call “police powers"—to promote and protect the health, safety, and welfare of the population. The chapter explores how these Constitutional principles affect healthy equity and the social determinants of health by analyzing landmark legal decisions that explain how the law ensures basic notions of justice and fairness for all people.