A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium, a ruling that could affect millions of tenants and landlords.
U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich said the eviction moratorium, first put in place during the pandemic last year and due to expire on June 30, went beyond the CDC’s powers.
“It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic,” the judge’s order stated. “The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”
President Donald Trump directed the CDC last August to consider whether a temporary halt on evictions was “reasonably necessary.” The agency issued its first temporary moratorium last September, saying the move was necessary “to prevent the further spread” of COVID-19.
The judge, a Trump appointee, said the Health and Human Services Department’s interpretation of federal law “goes too far.”
She said the law places “concrete limits” on the steps that the government can take to prevent the spread of disease.
“Under [the government’s] reading, so long as the Secretary can make a determination that a given measure is ‘necessary’ to combat the interstate or international spread of disease, there is no limit to the reach of his authority,” she wrote.
The judge, who sits in the District of Columbia, said the Public Service Health Act “unambiguously forecloses the nationwide eviction moratorium.”
“The court recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious public health crisis that has presented unprecedented challenges for public health officials and the nation as a whole,” the judge said. “The pandemic has triggered difficult policy decisions that have had enormous real-world consequences. The nationwide eviction moratorium is one such decision.”
At least 43 states and the District of Columbia have imposed their own halt on evictions during the pandemic.
Devin Watkins, an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said it was the fifth court to reject “the CDC’s view that it has unlimited power to prevent disease rather than abide by the law limiting its power to disinfecting ‘animals or articles.’”
“The CDC’s view of an unlimited and all-powerful federal government is at odds with the Constitution’s grant of limited and enumerated powers,” he said. “It is states, not the federal government, through which evictions occur. This unconstitutional and illegal action has rightly been stopped.”
The Justice Department, which argued for keeping the eviction freeze in place, immediately appealed the decision.
Brian M. Boynton, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement the department will ask an appellate court to block Judge Friedrich’s decision while its appeal is pending.
“The Department of Justice respectfully disagrees with today’s decision of the district court in Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS concluding that the moratorium exceeds CDC’s statutory authority to protect public health,” he said. “In the department’s view, that decision conflicts with the text of the statute, Congress’ ratification of the moratorium, and the rulings of other courts.”
The case now advances to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.