Technology like video chat makes martial law unlikely in US arsenal against coronavirus, experts say

Why coronavirus is unlikely to lead to martial law in the US
Key Points
  • Experts do not expect martial law to be declared or habeas corpus to be suspended in response to coronavirus.
  • Advances in technology like video chat allow courts to stay open during isolation and quarantine.

Experts say coronavirus is unlikely to lead to martial law in the U.S. because civilian governors have remained in control of their territories and local and federal governments are coordinating efforts.

"What we have here is a public health emergency with civilian agencies taking the lead and the charge. And we must maintain going forward measures based on health and science in accordance with our health, safety and civil rights," Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNBC.

Martial law is colloquially understood as when the military, and not the judicial system, acts as the supreme power and armed forces control all aspects of government. In instances of martial law, the military takes over the police powers of a local government. The military would have command of civilian governments.

While not a cause or effect of martial law, the suspension of habeas corpus is often spoken of in tandem with martial law.

A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner to court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful, according to according to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute.

Legally, the suspension of habeas corpus is only constitutional in situations of insurrection or invasion. During the coronavirus pandemic, many courts are choosing to hold sessions via video conference so they remain in operation. This protects people's ability to bring a habeas corpus petition to a judge.

Habeas corpus petitions via video conferencing have been used by the detainees at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, according to Michel Paradis, military and constitutional law professor at Columbia University.

"I think advances in technology probably make the need to suspend habeas corpus far less than it ever was when you literally had to go out and literally carry the body into a courtroom that was open," he said. "But it also may challenge the basic rules the courts have laid out in habeas corpus cases to understanding when we're in martial law and when martial law is actually truly justified."

Watch the video to find out why experts do not expect martial law to be declared in response to the coronavirus outbreak.