The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, determined that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have the authority to renew a federal eviction moratorium, citing a lack of congressional authorization.
In an unsigned opinion, the majority stated, “It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”
The ruling came after property owners in Georgia and Alabama challenged the moratorium, arguing that the freeze would cause them “significant financial hardship,” because they had to continue to pay expenses including mortgages, utilities, and property taxes while not receiving income from their renters.
In the ruling, the majority explained, “The applicants not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, (but) it is difficult to imagine them losing.”
The Supreme Court’s action won’t necessarily lead to immediate evictions of tenants who are behind on their rent, but it will allow property owners to begin eviction proceedings in cases where they couldn’t before.
The three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, all dissented from the majority’s ruling. Associate Justice Breyer argued in his dissent, “Applicants raise contested legal questions about an important federal statute on which the lower court is split and on which this court has never actually spoken,” he wrote.
“These questions call for considered decision making informed by full briefing and argument,” Breyer concluded, arguing that the Court should not have set aside the moratorium on an expedited basis. Breyer also attempted to rationalize extending the moratorium by citing public opinion polling, even though the CDC did not have the legal authority to extend the ruling.
The majority cited a lack of congressional authorization in its ruling to block the moratorium and also indicated that a decades-old-statute, which authorized the CDC to implement measures including “fumigation” and “pest extermination,” did not give the CDC the sweeping levels of authority it sought to justify in its attempted eviction moratorium. The majority justices later concluded, “If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it.”
Additionally, approximately $25 billion in federal funds has been poured into cities and states in February of 2020 to assist tenants who found themselves unable to make payments during the pandemic, along with another $21.55 billion in funds appropriated in March, indicating that tenants have not been entirely without assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Court told the Biden administration in June that this moratorium was likely unconstitutional but since it was going to expire at the end of July, it didn’t rule on it. Despite this warning, the Biden administration threw caution to the wind and the CDC extended the moratorium. Now the Court has formally spoken, and hopefully the rule of law and the separation of powers will be respected.
It is encouraging to see the Court quickly alleviate the injury caused to landlords over the past 18 months. What is discouraging, however, is that three justices of the Supreme Court would dissent on this decision and make weak arguments based on public opinion rather than law in order to extend the moratorium. The reason these issues were largely untouched by the Supreme Court is because, until the COVID pandemic, the CDC had never tried to seize unchecked power for itself.
The CDC was founded in 1946 for the limited mission of waging war on mosquitos in hopes of preventing the spread of malaria and eventually expanded to address all communicable diseases. Now, in its mission to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the health agency is waging war on contract law, property rights, individual liberty, and representative government. In its zeal to do good and keep people safe, the CDC believes that it knows best for everyone, but that kind of hubris can be just as dangerous as any virus, as it often leads to tyrannical thinking and behavior, like censorship, mandates, and threats, which has only gotten worse since the start of the pandemic.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court has put the CDC in its place on this one issue, and hopefully the Court will continue to educate the agency on its societal role and limits. Whether the CDC will learn its lesson, however, is questionable as its current leaders seem to believe that collective safety matters more than individual liberty, that their mission somehow outweighs the Constitution, and that the ends always justify the means.