By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Full-time RVers are struggling with finding a place to stay in this difficult time of pandemic. As state and local authorities shut down RV parks, or limit guests to those who stay under long-term status, the number of full-time RVers could conceivably exceed the available supply of short-term spots. One California RV park owner says the whole matter could end up in court – as a constitutional rights issue.
Michael Newdow, who owns the Aurora RV Park on California’s largest lake, Clear Lake, in Nice, has a tri-fold view on this whole matter. Not only does he own the RV park, he’s also an emergency physician, and an attorney with a focus on constitutional law. Newdow was recently interviewed by Woodall’s Campground Management, and his quotes are from that interview.
The issue of RVers being locked out of RV parks because of the coronavirus pandemic is of great concern to Newdow, both as an RV park owner and as a physician. In a letter to the health authority with oversight of Nice, California’s jurisdiction, he wrote out a reasoned argument as to the need to keep private parks open.
“First of all,” Dr. Newdow articulated, “unlike immobile residences, RVs spend hours in 55-plus mph winds, thus ridding their exteriors of viruses as they are driven from one location to the next. Second, with RVs being only a few hundred square feet in size, owners do not generally have others visiting inside. Thus, any ‘socializing’ is usually entirely outdoors, where (unlike when people meet or greet inside their homes or buildings) viruses – if present – are greatly dispersed, resulting in a very low likelihood of it being transmitted to others. Lastly, owners tend to stay within their own ‘spaces’ at RV parks and they ‘socialize’ merely with hellos or waves to other guests, some twenty or thirty feet away.”
“In view of the foregoing,” Newdow asserts, “RVers are (or should be) permitted to stop at the county’s RV parks, (because) their doing so will not in any significant way endanger Lake County’s permanent residents.”
But as a constitutional lawyer, Newdow digs a bit deeper – it’s the whole business of citizens’ right to travel. Speaking of Gary Pace, the county health officer, the lawyer in Newdow says, “I understand that Pace is only trying to protect the county’s residents, and I applaud his dedication to that goal.” But he adds, “I also recognize that he has been granted broad emergency powers. But those powers are not unlimited, and – especially when fundamental constitutional rights are being infringed upon – he has a duty to narrowly tailor his orders to protect those rights as much as possible. At the very least, he needs to provide some showing that allowing RVers to stay in an RV park – where social distancing is normally practiced and where contacts among guests can readily be limited to the outdoors – increases the risk of viral transmission. I don’t think that showing can be made.”
Fundamental constitutional rights? Apparently the framers of the U.S. Constitution felt so strongly that the right of free travel by citizens was so deeply ingrained in society they didn’t feel a need to spell that right out in great detail, particularly in light that the Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, had made freedom of movement clear. That lack of clear distinction in the Constitution was hammered out by the Supreme Court in 1868 in Crandal v Nevada. In that case, Nevada was hauled into court because it charged a $1 tax on anyone leaving the state with the use of a for-hire company. The Court ruled, in shooting down the tax, that freedom to travel between states was a fundamental right of U.S. citizens.
In this, Dr. Newdow sees the seeds of a constitutional challenge to Lake County, California’s prohibition of RVers being able to check into the private RV park of their choice, and muses that he may be the one to file the challenge. It wouldn’t be a big surprise, because in the past, Newdow has brought cases to court on constitutional issues. An avowed atheist, Newdow once brought suit on behalf of his daughter, suggesting the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional bridge between the separation of government and religion. A lower court agreed with Newdow’s view. On appeal, however, the Supreme Court tossed the lower court ruling out. The “Supremes” ruled that Newdow, who was not his daughter’s legal guardian at the time, lacked legal standing to bring the case up.
If Newdow does proceed to take another “at bat” in the constitutional law game remains to be seen. If he does, no doubt RVers – and many others – will be watching with great interest from the stands.