The U.S. Supreme Court said Thursday night the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t have the power to impose a sweeping halt on evictions, blocking an updated moratorium President Joe Biden’s administration put in place due to Covid-19.
A lower court judge ruled against the eviction moratorium earlier this month but temporarily stayed her decision, and in an unsigned ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court lifted the stay and allowed the moratorium to be halted.
The Supreme Court rejected the federal government’s claim that the eviction moratorium falls under its legal power to enact rules preventing the spread of communicable disease, suggesting that law primarily applies to narrow measures like disinfection or fumigation.
The court’s three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — dissented: They argued Congress gave the government broad latitude to prevent the spread of disease, and warned striking down the moratorium could imperil public health amid a rise in Covid-19 cases.
Forbes has reached out to the CDC for comment.
“It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken. But that has not happened. Instead, the CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination,” the Supreme Court wrote. “It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”
“The [majority opinion] says that Congress must speak more clearly to authorize the CDC to address public health crises via eviction moratoria,” Breyer wrote in his dissent. “But it is undisputed that the statute permits the CDC to adopt significant measures such as quarantines, which arguably impose greater restrictions on individuals’ rights and state police powers than do limits on evictions.”
Issued earlier this month, the CDC’s moratorium blocks landlords from evicting tenants who make under $99,000 per year for nonpayment of rent, if they live in an area with high or substantial levels of Covid-19 transmission — a designation that covers the vast majority of the country. It’s a narrower version of a months-old CDC eviction ban that automatically applied to the entire country, regardless of coronavirus infection rates. The CDC argued these bans were necessary because a surge in evictions would threaten public health during a pandemic, especially as large numbers of Americans struggle to pay their rent amid a spike in unemployment. But the measures were challenged in court by landlord groups who argued an indefinite eviction pause left them in a financially precarious situation. The Supreme Court allowed a previous version of the CDC’s eviction moratorium to stay in place in a 5-4 June decision, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he thought the moratorium was likely illegal and only voted to leave it in place because it was set to expire at the end of July. As a result, the Biden administration was hesitant to extend the policy and instead lobbied Congress to pass an eviction pause into law, but after these efforts failed, the CDC rolled out a narrower two-month moratorium, which the Supreme Court struck down Thursday.
After Biden introduced the CDC’s latest eviction pause earlier this month, he acknowledged that many legal scholars argued it was “not likely to pass constitutional muster,” but he thought it was still worth trying. He later clarified that he believed it was constitutional, but he wasn’t sure whether the Supreme Court would leave it intact: “In this court, who knows?”