US Supreme Court blocked 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.”
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.
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.”
Back then, Kavanaugh, who cast the fifth and deciding vote, also wrote that he voted not to end the eviction program, “because those few weeks will allow for additional and more orderly distribution” of the funds that Congress appropriated to provide rental assistance to those in need due to the pandemic.
But Kavanaugh said that in his view Congress would have to pass new and clearer legislation to extend the moratorium past July. And despite a last-minute effort in Congress to do that, lawmakers didn’t have the votes.
Congress has approved nearly $50 billion to help people pay back rent and avoid eviction. But while in some states and counties that’s been working well, in many others the help hasn’t reached the vast majority of renters who need it.
By one estimate, 15 states still haven’t managed to get even 5% of those federal dollars out the door to renters facing eviction.