WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to lift a moratorium on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The votes were 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judges Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett M. Kavanaugh in the majority.
The court did not give reasons for its decision, which is typical for urgent requests. However, Judge Kavanaugh issued a brief concluding statement stating that he was reluctant to cast his vote, taking into account the impending expiry of the moratorium.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has exceeded their existing legal powers by issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium,” wrote Judge Kavanaugh. “Since the CDC plans to end the moratorium in just a few weeks, on July 31st, and because those few weeks will allow an additional and more orderly distribution of the Congress-approved rent support, I am voting at this point to reject the motion.” which had been submitted by landlords, real estate companies and professional associations.
He added that the agency may not extend the moratorium on its own. “In my opinion,” wrote Judge Kavanaugh, “the CDC would need clear and specific approval from Congress (through new laws) to extend the moratorium beyond July 31.”
At the start of the pandemic, Congress declared a moratorium on evictions that expired last July. The CDC then issued a number of its own moratoria.
“In doing so,” the challengers told judges, “the CDC shifted the financial burdens of the pandemic from the 30 to 40 million tenants in the country to its 10 to 11 million landlords – most of whom, such as applicants, are individuals and small businesses – which translates into over $ 13 billion a month in unpaid rent. ”The total cost to landlords in the country, they wrote, could run to $ 200 billion.
The moratorium postpones the obligation to pay rent, but does not remove it; the challengers wrote that this “massive wealth transfer” would “never be fully reversed”. Many tenants, they wrote, will not be able to pay their debts. “In reality,” they wrote, “the eviction moratorium has become an instrument of economic policy rather than disease control.”
The government asked the Supreme Court to maintain the moratorium, saying continued vigilance against the spread of the coronavirus was needed, noting that Congress had allocated tens of billions of dollars to settle rent arrears.
The challengers argued that the law on which the agency relied, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, did not approve the moratorium.
The 1944 Act, the challengers wrote, covered quarantines and inspections to stop the spread of disease, and did not give the agency full power to take whatever action it could to stop the spread of communicable diseases – be it eviction moratoria, Worship borders, nationwide lockdowns, school closings or vaccination orders. “
The CDC argued that the moratorium was approved by the 1944 law. Evictions would accelerate the spread of the coronavirus, the agency said by forcing people “often to move to new shared apartments with friends or family in close quarters or to gather in facilities such as homeless shelters”.
The case was complicated by congressional action in December when lawmakers took a mediocre measure to temporarily extend the CDC’s moratorium until the end of January. When Congress took no further action, the agency again imposed moratoria under the 1944 law.
In its letter from the Supreme Court, the government argued that it was important that Congress approve, if only briefly, of the agency’s actions.
Last month, Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the Federal District Court in Washington ruled that the agency had exceeded its powers in issuing the moratorium.
“The question to the court,” she wrote, “is a narrow one: does the CDC Public Health Service Act give the CDC legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It doesn’t. “
Judge Friedrich postponed her decision while the government appealed and left the moratorium in place. A unanimous panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declined to lift the suspension as the government is likely to win the appeal.
Whatever one might say about the eviction moratorium, the challengers told the Supreme Court that it outlived its purpose.
“The government might want to extend the moratorium to review its economic policy goals,” they wrote, “but that does not make their stated reasoning plausible. Forcing landlords to provide free housing to vaccinated Americans may be good policy, but it cannot be called health policy.