state of emergency

state of emergency, situation in which a government or a government body is empowered to act with enhanced powers in order to respond to a crisis. The enhanced or emergency powers, and in many cases immunities or other protections for officials tasked with exercising such powers, are typically activated by a declaration of a state of emergency or a declaration of a national, state, or other emergency. States of emergency may be declared during wars, civil disturbances, natural disasters, pandemics, or the like when prompt and vigorous action and ready access to expanded resources are needed or when suspending normal legal procedures is considered desirable. Depending on the laws governing the emergency, a declaration of a state of emergency may need to be ratified by a legislative body. In some cases, multiple emergencies may be declared; for example, a devastating hurricane might result in the declaration of both disaster and public health emergencies. Because of the expansive powers granted in a state of emergency, authoritarian leaders and dictators have often used emergency declarations to suspend legal and constitutional limits and protections and rule by decree.

In the United States, the limited emergency powers outlined in the U.S. Constitution are restricted to Congress. Presidents have, however, been regarded as having inherent emergency powers as result of being the government executive and commander in chief, and this assumption has informed presidential actions during various wars including Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War and F. D. Roosevelt's internment of U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent during World War II. In 1976 Congress passed the National Emergencies Act in order to regularize the declaration of a national emergency and the use of emergency powers. Under it, the president must declare a national emergency, must specify which emergency powers will be used, must update the declaration if additional powers will be used, and must renew the declaration annually or the emergency will come to an end. There is no definition of what should constitute a national emergency; a president has the discretion to determine when and why to declare a national emergency. A declaration can be overturned by an act of Congress (which is, however, subject to veto), and Congress is required to meet every six months to consider a vote on an existing national emergency.

In a national emergency the president may use a broad range of emergency powers specified by a number of different laws; some powers may be used under specified conditions, such as war or economic crisis, even if a national emergency has not been declared. The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (1977; IEEPA), for example, permits the president to regulate financial and other commercial transactions involving designated entities in a declared national emergency, and these powers have been used to impose economic sanctions on individuals, companies, and countries, including U.S. citizens. Most of the dozens of national emergencies declared since 1976 have focused on applying economic sanctions to countries or individuals. Presidents have also used emergency authority granted under various laws to limit raises to federal employees that are otherwise required under the law; such action does not require a declaration of a national emergency, only notification of Congress.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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