Federal judge in Texas strikes down U.S. COVID-19 eviction moratorium

(Reuters) - A federal judge in Texas on Thursday ruled unconstitutional a national moratorium the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has instituted for most residential evictions to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Siding with a group of landlords and property owners challenging the evictions freeze, U.S. District Judge J. Campbell Barker in Tyler, Texas, ruled the CDC exceeded its authority under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The court concludes that the federal government’s Article I power to regulate interstate commerce and enact laws necessary and proper to that end does not include the power to impose the challenged eviction moratorium,” Barker wrote.

The judge, appointed to the bench in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump, added: “Although the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does the Constitution.”

Barker said he expected the CDC to abide by his ruling and cease enforcement of the CDC’s moratorium order, imposed in September under the Trump administration and extended on Jan. 21, the day after President Joe Biden took office, to run at least another two months.

“So the court chooses not to issue an injunction at this time,” the judge said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling. There was no immediate word from the CDC as to whether it intended to continue to enforce the moratorium should the case be appealed.

Several other federal courts elsewhere across the United States have rejected similar challenges seeking to block the moratorium, which temporarily has halted eviction proceedings for millions of tenants across the country.

The judge’s ruling noted the lawsuit in Texas does not call into question numerous eviction freezes or rent-assistance programs instituted at the state and local level.

The CDC order applies to individual renters who did not expect to earn more than $99,000 last year or $198,000 for joint tax return filers. It also applies to tenants who did not report income in 2019 or received a federal economic stimulus check in 2020.

In issuing the moratorium, the Atlanta-based CDC, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said it had determined that evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The landlords’ lawsuit claimed the eviction freeze unconstitutionally deprived them of their property rights.

“The court’s order today holding the CDC’s interference with private property rights under the veil of COVID-19 serves as notice to the Biden administration that the Constitution limits government power,” Kimberly Hermann, general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, said in a statement.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Lincoln Feast.