WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked President Joe Biden’s eviction moratorium, allowing property owners to begin the process of evicting millions of Americans who are behind on rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over a dissent from the court’s three liberal justices, the court ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have authority to impose the freeze.
“It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken,” the court’s majority wrote in an unsigned opinion. “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. It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer asserted that the court should not have set aside the moratorium on an expedited basis.
“Applicants raise contested legal questions about an important federal statute on which the lower courts are split and on which this court has never actually spoken,” Breyer wrote. “These questions call for considered decision making, informed by full briefing and argument. Their answers impact the health of millions.”
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In addition to raising questions about the CDC’s authority to impose the moratorium, real estate groups in Georgia and Alabama told the high court that the freeze caused significant financial hardship – requiring property owners to pay expenses while not receiving income from some of their renters.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “disappointed that the Supreme Court has blocked the most recent CDC eviction moratorium while confirmed cases of the delta variant are significant across the country.” As a result, she said, “families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
The court’s ruling dealt only with whether the moratorium would continue on a temporary basis while lower courts consider the underlying challenge, but it is nevertheless pivotal. The CDC’s moratorium had been set to expire in early October and a legal fight over its merits would almost certainly take months, if not years.
But the court, which has to weigh the likelihood of a plaintiff’s ultimate success when deciding a temporary order, indicated that the administration faces an uphill climb.
“The applicants not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits – it is difficult to imagine them losing,” the majority wrote.
The ruling won’t likely lead to renters immediately being removed, but it will allow property owners to begin eviction proceedings in cases where they couldn’t before.
The decision marked the second time this week that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority shot down a Biden initiative. On Tuesday the court required the administration to reinstate an immigration policy requiring migrants to wait in Mexico while U.S. officials process their asylum claims. Biden had sought to unwind that Trump-era policy.
Congress approved the original eviction moratorium in the early months of the pandemic. When it expired in July 2020, President Donald Trump ordered the CDC to impose its own freeze, which it did in September. Biden extended that order through last month, prompting a lengthy political and legal battle over its impact.
A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court in June allowed the eviction freeze to remain in place for a month, but Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh indicated that he would switch his vote if the administration attempted to extend the freeze beyond the end of July.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its existing statutory authority by issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium,” Kavanaugh wrote at the time. “Clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31.”
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As the highly contagious delta variant took hold, Biden had encouraged Congress to extend the freeze. When lawmakers did not do so, the CDC announced a new moratorium this month that ran through the end of October.
Several real estate groups in Georgia and Alabama immediately sued again, noting that the new moratorium relied on the same 1944 public health law that was at issue in the first case. A district court judge allowed the moratorium to remain in place in an Aug. 13 ruling as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in another decision soon after.
The CDC’s order banned evictions in counties with high rates of COVID-19 transmission, a threshold that most counties met. At the time, Biden acknowledged the difficult legal challenge he was facing and said that fight would “probably give some additional time” for rental assistance to make its way to renters.
More than 3.5 million people said they are likely to face eviction in the next two months, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, though it’s unclear how many of those people would have received protection under the federal moratorium.
About $25 billion in federal money poured into states and cities in February to help renters unable to make payments amid the pandemic, followed by the March approval of another $21.55 billion in Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Yet only $3 billion – or $6.5% – had been distributed to landlords and their tenants as of the end of June, according to Treasury Department data.
The White House reiterated its call for local governments and others to step in.
“In light of the Supreme Court ruling and the continued risk of COVID-19 transmission, President Biden is once again calling on all entities that can prevent evictions – from cities and states to local courts, landlords, Cabinet agencies – to urgently act to prevent evictions,” Psaki said.
Contributing: Joey Garrison and Michael Collins