In Event of an (AI) Emergency: Interpreting Continuity of Government Provisions in State Constitutions

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Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal


“Of this I am certain: If we prepare ourselves so that a terrible attack—although it might hurt us—could not destroy us, then such an attack will never come.” - Edward Teller, the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” in an interview with Allen Brown of This Week Magazine in 1957.

Bad actors have already used or may soon use AI to disrupt critical infrastructure, influence elections, and upend economies. Those most concerned about the risks posed by AI argue that it is a matter of when and not if state governments will have to respond to threatened or realized acts of AI aggression. Though a litany of scholars have examined the powers governors may use in emergency situations, less attention has been paid to the role of state legislatures in responding to destabilizing events.

Scholars have justified their focus on governors for practical reasons—the executive branch of state governments has been deemed the “the center of governmental response[s]” to public emergencies. Two trends caution against perpetuating neglect of state legislatures. First, the legal and social bases for governors to take sweeping action in response to emergencies eroded in many states during COVID-19. In turn, many state legislatures, by law, by popular support, or both, have amassed more authority to respond in worst-case scenarios. Second, the likelihood of states being thrown into disarray will only increase as AI evolves and spreads; thus, warranting a closer analysis of what powers state legislatures may exercise to restore normalcy.

Thirty-five state constitutions contain variants of a template “Continuity of Government” (CoG) provision promulgated by the federal government at the height of the Cold War. What events may trigger these provisions, as well as what powers they afford to state legislatures, has evaded judicial scrutiny as a result of state legislatures rarely invoking the relevant provision. It follows that the scholarly analysis of how best to interpret these important provisions should occur in the relative tranquility of the present rather than at the height of a calamity. This preemptive analysis may improve the ability of state legislatures to respond to disorder by clarifying the likely scope and duration of their powers and, ideally, by spurring amendments to clarify the provisions in advance of any such event.

This paper serves as one (and, likely, the first) entry in an inquiry that merits immediate and robust scholarly attention. Relying on the framework set forth by the New Haven School of Jurisprudence, this paper resolves one of the most consequential ambiguities contained in CoG provisions. This framework deserves special consideration given its inclusion of myriad disciplines and its characterization as an “explicitly policy-oriented jurisprudence.”

Scholars from across the legal profession have a role in contributing to this inquiry. The incorporation of AI into legal practice imposes a responsibility on scholars to anticipate how the technology may require new doctrines, laws, and methods of interpretation. Though this paper focuses on the continuation of state governments in the wake of an AI emergency, related inquiries such as how to rethink contract law, property law, and the like upon such an emergency demand more scholarly attention. The exploration of those topics can, in turn, inform what sorts of powers state legislatures may need to exercise and for how long.

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