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Federal judge in Texas rules eviction moratorium is unconstitutional

The pandemic-related emergency measure was aimed at halting evictions of people whose livelihoods were upended by Covid-19.
Image: Evictions Continue Despite CDC Moratorium As COVID-19 Ravages U.S. Economy
Maricopa County constable Darlene Martinez escorts a family out of their apartment after serving an eviction order for non-payment in Phoenix on Sept. 30, 2020.John Moore / Getty Images file

A federal judge in Texas ruled Thursday that the national eviction moratorium aimed at helping victims of the coronavirus pandemic hold onto their homes is unconstitutional.

In a 21-page ruling, Judge John Campbell Barker said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction moratorium is unprecedented and overbroad, and while individual states have the power to put such restrictions in place, the federal government does not.

"The federal government cannot say that it has ever before invoked its power over interstate commerce to impose a residential eviction moratorium," Barker wrote. "It did not do so during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. Nor did it invoke such a power during the exigencies of the Great Depression. The federal government has not claimed such a power at any point during our Nation’s history until last year."

"Although the Covid-19 pandemic persists, so does the Constitution," he added.

The scope of the order is unclear. Barker wrote that given "defendants’ representations to the court, it is 'anticipated that [defendants] would respect the declaratory judgment.'”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice, which represented the CDC in the case, declined comment on the ruling.

The moratorium was first enacted as part of the first coronavirus stimulus bill, the Cares Act, signed by then-President Donald Trump last March. It expired in July of last year and was followed by the order from the CDC in September, which was set to expire at the end of January but was extended through March by President Joe Biden's CDC director, Rochelle P. Walensky.

Walensky said the move was necessary because while the pandemic "has presented a historic threat to our nation's health," it also "triggered a housing affordability crisis that disproportionately affects some communities."

"We must act to get cases down and keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings — like shelters — where Covid-19 can take an even stronger foothold," she said in January.

In his ruling, Barker, who was nominated to the court by Trump in 2018, said the federal government overstepped with the order.

"Here, the regulated activity is not the production or use of a commodity that is traded in an interstate market. Rather, the challenged order regulates property rights in buildings — specifically, whether an owner may regain possession of property from an inhabitant," he wrote, adding, "Real estate is inherently local."

It's unclear if the DOJ will appeal the ruling. The CDC order is set to expire on March 31.

Biden earlier this month extended a foreclosure moratorium and mortgage forbearance through the end of June in an effort to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.