The Supreme Court issued an emergency order on Thursday blocking a New York state pandemic-issued law created to protect renters from eviction.
The emergency order, issued at the dissent of the court’s three Democratic justices, takes aim at the portion of New York’s COVID Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act that allows tenants to self-certify that they’re facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, and avoid eviction through this means through the end of August.
The court’s argument for the law’s unconstitutionality was that landlords had no way to effectively challenge such claims made by a tenant.
“If a tenant self-certifies financial hardship, [the law] generally precludes a landlord from contesting that certification and denies the landlord a hearing,” the court’s order said. “This scheme violates the Court’s longstanding teaching that ordinarily ‘no man can be a judge in his own case’ consistent with the Due Process Clause.”
The injunction only applies to the tenant self-certification provision, and bears no impact on the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, another law that provides renters with pandemic-related protections.
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan argued that the move by the court was not warranted at this time, three weeks before the law was set to expire, and it was unclear whether it would do more good than harm.
“While applicants correctly point out that there are landlords who suffer hardship, we must balance against the landlords’ hardship the hardship to New York tenants who have relied on CEEFPA’s protections and will now be forced to face eviction proceedings earlier than expected,” Bryer wrote. “It is impossible — especially on the abbreviated schedule of an application for an emergency injunction — to know whether more hardship will result from leaving CEEFPA in place or from barring its enforcement.”
Bryer also criticized the court for questioning the New York Legislature’s competency.
“The New York Legislature is responsible for responding to a grave and unpredictable public health crisis,” Bryer wrote. “The legislature does not enjoy unlimited discretion in formulating that response, but in this case I would not second-guess politically accountable officials’ determination of how best to ‘guard and protect’ the people of New York.”
The landlords‘ lead legal representation, Randy Mastro, expressed thanks at the court’s decision.
“On behalf of New York’s small landlords, we are extremely grateful to the Supreme Court for reaffirming that, ‘even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.’”
Meanwhile, housing advocates responded by asking the state legislature to reconvene to amend the law so that it allowed for hearings on tenants’ hardship declarations, in compliance with the emergency order.
“Since tenants in New York State have suffered immensely during COVID-19, they will have no trouble proving hardship and satisfying the supreme courts’ mandate,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “The state legislature can make this minor fix and prevent thousands of New York residents from losing their homes.”
The ruling may serve as a legal challenge to the new federal eviction moratorium that’s currently waiting on an initial ruling from a District Court judge in Washington. That ban, which is set to expire October 3, applies to areas of the country where there are high levels of community transmission of the virus, or about 80 percent of U.S. counties.
Email Lillian Dickerson