What is Martial Law and How Would it Affect New York City?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in all five boroughs of New York City, some commentators have suggested that a declaration of martial law may help to stop the spread of the virus. But what exactly is martial law? And how would it affect a city like New York?

What is Martial Law?

The ability to declare martial law is a power that is vested in the Governor of New York State. According to MIL § 6 of the Consolidated Laws of New York:

“The Governor shall have power, in case of invasion, disaster, insurrection, riot, breach of the peace, or imminent danger thereof, to order into the active service of the state for such period, to such extent and in such manner as he may deem necessary all or any part of the organized militia. Such power shall include the power to order the organized militia or any part thereof to function under the operational control of the United States army, navy or air force commander in charge of the defense of any area within the state which is invaded or attacked or is or may be threatened with invasion or attack.”

The power of the Governor of New York is further expanded in MIL § 9 of the Consolidated Laws of New York, which states that:

“Whenever any portion of the organized militia is employed pursuant to section six of this chapter, the Governor, if in his judgment the maintenance of law and order will thereby be promoted, may by proclamation declare the county or city in which the troops are serving or any specified portion thereof, to be under martial rule.”

In simple terms, these statutes allow the Governor to mobilize the New York National Guard to any area that is impacted by a disaster. The Governor can then direct the military to carry out just about any necessary function or activity.

Has Martial Law Ever Been Declared in New York Before?

Declaring martial law is broadly considered to be an action of last resort – only to be used in case of certain severe emergencies. As such, it has never been done by any Governor of New York.

In fact, martial law has not been declared in any state in the nation in more than 50 years. The most recent leader to take this monumental step was Governor John Patterson of Alabama. On May 21st of 1961, he decided to declare martial law in his state to tackle the issue of “outside agitators coming into Alabama to violate our laws and customs.”

In reality, the individuals that Governor Patterson described as “outside agitators” were peaceful civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders. They had come to Alabama to protest racial segregation in the state.

Can the President of the United States Declare Martial Law in New York?

If martial law were ever to be declared in New York, it would almost certainly be done by the Governor. However, it is both technically and legally possible for the President of the United States to make the declaration instead.

The President was given the power to declare martial law in the Insurrection Act of 1807. This statute explains that the President may deploy the military to a state or territory if violence or civil unrest is creating a barrier to the maintenance of law and order. The President does not need to have received a request from a state’s Governor before taking this step.

How Would a Declaration of Martial Law Impact New York City?

Since martial law has never gone into effect in New York before, it is impossible to know for sure how such a declaration would impact daily life in the City. However, it is generally accepted that the principal roles of a martial law military would be to:

  • Keep the peace and maintain order
  • Minimize death and destruction
  • Assist with disaster recovery efforts
  • Minimize disruption to daily life

As such, if martial law were to be declared, New Yorkers would most likely see members of the military performing tasks like:

  • Dispersing large crowds
  • Preventing looting and rioting
  • Providing medical assistance to sick and severely injured civilians
  • Assisting with the running of essential government services
  • Handing out food, medicine, and other supplies to those in need
  • Ensuring that grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses can continue to operate without disruption

In short, if martial law is declared in New York, the military will do whatever the Governor deems necessary to keep citizens safe and maintain order in the city.