Supreme Court ends Biden moratorium on residential evictions

Court finds CDC exceeded its authority in issuing the moratorium.

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Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration's moratorium on residential evictions.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

The US Supreme Court on Thursday ended the Biden administration's COVID-related moratorium on residential evictions. The ruling came in a challenge to the policy brought by a coalition of landlords and real estate trade groups.

The court said in an unsigned opinion (PDF) that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority in issuing the moratorium. The court's conservative majority agreed with the challengers' argument, ruling in their 6-3 decision that the agency would have needed explicit congressional authorization to do so. Three liberal justices dissented.

"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," the opinion said. "It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts."

The CDC issued its order on Aug. 3, temporarily extending the moratorium for 60 days after the previous federal block on residential evictions expired on July 31. The temporary federal halt on evictions, which was to run until Oct. 3, was designed to halt evictions in areas hardest hit by COVID-19 and the delta variant.  

About 44 million households -- about one-third of the US population -- are renters, many of which have been protected by some form of an eviction moratorium since Congress passed the initial CARES Act in March 2020. After that order lapsed in July 2020, the CDC began issuing its own moratoriums, saying the Public Health Service Act of 1944 gave it the authority to do so.

The 1944 statue authorizes the US surgeon general to "make and enforce such regulations" that are in the agency's "judgment necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases." But the moratorium's challengers, who said the moratorium was costing them billions of dollars, argued that the 1944 law didn't authorize the agency to issue the moratorium.

The CDC wrote in March (PDF) that "evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate settings such as homeless shelters."

In issuing the latest moratorium, the CDC argued that its decision was justified by the "recent, unexpected developments in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rise of the Delta variant."

In his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer sided with the CDC's position. "The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC's judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates," he wrote.

The majority opinion agreed that preventing the spread of the virus was a major concern but said it didn't justify the CDC exceeding its authority.

"It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant," the opinion said. "But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends."

"If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it," the opinion held.

The White House expressed disappointment with the court's ruling, saying the CDC's policy saved lives by preventing the spread of the virus.

"As a result of this ruling, families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19," the administration said in a statement.

"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," the White House said.  

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