This installment of Law and the Public's Health considers the role of the judiciary in advancing public health goals. Typically, public health policy advocacy efforts aim to affect the regulation and legislation produced by the executive and legislative branches of federal, state, and local government bodies. But one branch of government—the judiciary—is less frequently considered as a venue, which is a missed opportunity for public health.
The goal of this article is to demonstrate the need and identify the strategies for what we call “public health advocacy in the courts,” defined as actions by public health professionals that inform and affect how courts approach matters that affect the public's health. We first review the court's traditional roles in defining and deciding public health-related matters and consider judicial actions in the areas of constitutional and administrative law, civil litigation, and criminal law. Within criminal law, we highlight the recent expansion of problem-solving courts as a new opportunity for public health professionals to engage with the criminal justice community in advancing prevention strategies to address public health issues such as substance abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV). We then discuss specific strategies by which public health professionals can engage as advocates in the criminal and civil judicial processes. We conclude by presenting public health advocacy in the courts as a natural extension of existing public health advocacy, and offer strategies for overcoming the obstacles that public health professionals may encounter when they engage in these efforts.