Court Battles

Supreme Court blocks part of New York's eviction moratorium

The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked part of an eviction moratorium put in place by New York state amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The order was unsigned but appeared to break along familiar ideological lines over the dissent of the court's three liberals.

The ruling temporarily lifts part of New York's policy, which had precluded landlords from challenging a tenant's self-certified claim of financial hardship, an attestation that had automatically paused eviction proceedings under the policy. But the order does not interfere with a tenant's ability to mount a so-called hardship defense in an eviction court proceeding.

The court's unsigned order will remain in place while a legal challenge plays out in a New York-based federal appeals court. In it, the majority wrote that the New York policy appeared to violate landlords' due process right to a hearing in the face of a tenant's claimed inability to pay rent. 

"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," they wrote.

The application, filed by a group of five New York property owners and a landlords' association, was submitted to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency matters arising from New York and who referred the matter to the rest of the justices.

Sotomayor and fellow liberal justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer dissented from the majority's Thursday order. 

Breyer, in a five-page dissenting opinion, noted that the challenged New York law is set to expire in less than three weeks, that the Empire State is distributing more than $2 billion in rental aid to cash-strapped renters and that the property owners had been rebuffed in the lower courts.

"Under these circumstances, such drastic relief would only be appropriate if 'the legal rights at issue [we]re indisputably clear and, even then, sparingly and only in the most critical and exigent circumstances.' ... I conclude that this strict standard is not met here," Breyer wrote.

"The legislature does not enjoy unlimited discretion in formulating that response," he continued, "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."

Updated 8:05 p.m.

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