US Supreme Court lifts Biden's Covid-19 moratorium on evictions

US Supreme Court lifted the Biden administration's moratorium on evictions, ending protections for millions of people who have fallen behind on rent payments. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A divided US Supreme Court lifted the Biden administration's moratorium on evictions, ending protections for millions of people who have fallen behind on rent payments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saying landlords were suffering "irreparable harm", a 6-3 majority ruled late on Thursday (Aug 26) that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention lacked authority to impose the moratorium under the decades-old federal law it was invoking.

"It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorised the action that the CDC has taken. But that has not happened," the court said in an unsigned opinion.

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

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was disappointed with the decision, crediting the CDC's eviction moratoriums for saving lives.

"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," Ms Psaki said in a statement on Thursday night.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, faulting the court for deciding the issue without full briefing and argument.

"The public interest strongly favours respecting the CDC's judgement at this moment, when over 90 per cent of counties are experiencing high transmission rates," Mr Breyer wrote for the group. "That figure is the highest it has been since at least last winter."

Congressional Inaction The court had left intact a previous CDC moratorium in June, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh said at the time that congressional authorisation would be required for any further extension.

Congress did not act and progressives instead pressured US President Joe Biden to issue a new, slightly narrower moratorium. The ban applied in counties with "substantial or high rates of community transmission" of the coronavirus - currently more than 95 per cent of the country.

Justice Department lawyers argued that the Delta variant of the virus had heightened the importance of the eviction ban to ensure that a wave of people are not forced into more crowded accommodations.

In announcing the revised moratorium on Aug 3, Mr Biden acknowledged the legal odds were long. But he said the ban was worth pursuing in part because the litigation would give local governments additional time to distribute more than US$45 billion (S$61 billion) in rental assistance Congress has granted.

The challengers, a group of landlords and real-estate trade associations from Alabama and Georgia, said Mr Biden's remarks showed the administration was flouting the rule of law.

The Treasury Department said on Wednesday that only US$1.7 billion in rental assistance was released last month, bringing the total so far to US$5.1 billion.

The administration has been relying on a legal provision that authorises the secretary of health and human services to "make and enforce such regulations as in his judgement are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases". The CDC is housed within the Health and Human Services Department.

The case is Alabama Association of Realtors v Department of Health and Human Services, 21A23.

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