WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked part of an eviction moratorium in New York State that had been imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a move the law’s supporters said might expose thousands to eviction.
“This is a very serious setback for our ability to protect tenants in the middle of a pandemic,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat and one of the sponsors of the moratorium law.
Randy M. Mastro, a lawyer for the landlords who had challenged the law, said the court’s decision would permit “cases that have been stopped in their tracks by the state moratorium law to proceed so that both landlords and tenants can be heard.”
Still, the court’s order, which was unsigned, stressed that it applied only to a provision that bars the eviction of tenants who file a form saying they have suffered economic setbacks as a result of the pandemic, rather than providing evidence in court. “This scheme violates the court’s longstanding teaching that ordinarily ‘no man can be a judge in his own case,’” the majority wrote.
The order left other parts of the law intact, including a provision that instructed housing judges not to evict tenants who have been found to have suffered financial hardship.
Other challenges to eviction moratoriums, including one recently imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may reach the court soon. That federal moratorium is on precarious legal ground in light of a ruling in June in which a key justice said it could not be renewed without congressional approval.
It was not clear how many people could immediately be affected by the ruling on Thursday. More than 830,000 households in New York State, the majority of them in New York City, are behind on rent, with a total estimated debt of more than $3.2 billion, according to an analysis of census data by the National Equity Atlas, a research group associated with the University of Southern California.
Mr. Kavanagh said it appeared that landlords could start filing suits immediately to evict tenants. But a patchwork of other state and federal protections remains in place that could stop their suits from succeeding, including the C.D.C. eviction moratorium, which covers most of New York, including all of New York City.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is set to become New York’s next governor in less than two weeks after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leaves office amid a sexual harassment scandal, said in a statement that she would work with state lawmakers to “quickly address the Supreme Court’s decision and strengthen the eviction moratorium legislation.”
“No New Yorker who has been financially hit or displaced by the pandemic should be forced out of their home,” she said.
The court’s three liberal members dissented from the order. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for himself and Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said the law was set to expire in a matter of weeks and was not plainly unconstitutional.
“The New York Legislature is responsible for responding to a grave and unpredictable public health crisis,” Justice Breyer wrote. “It must combat the spread of a virulent disease, mitigate the financial suffering caused by business closures and minimize the number of unnecessary evictions.”
“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,” he wrote, quoting an earlier opinion.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came as New York continued to struggle to dole out federal pandemic relief dollars to help tenants who fell behind on paying rent during the pandemic and landlords who had lost rental income.
Only about $100 million — or less than four percent of the state’s $2.7 billion total — had been spent, state officials testified this week. Even before the court’s ruling, the slow pace had prompted some lawmakers to warn that, without an extension, large numbers of people may face eviction. The ruling only intensified those fears.
The case was brought by several small landlords who said they had endured severe hardship and even homelessness because of the part of the law allowing eviction proceedings to be suspended by the filing of a form. The law does not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent or block lawsuits for unpaid rents.
The sponsors of the law, enacted in December 2020, said it addressed the pandemic by making it less likely that people would be forced into crowded shared housing, by easing the economic consequences of the health crisis and by alleviating the burdens on courts and litigants.
The landlords argued that the law violated due process principles by depriving them of meaningful access to the courts. They also objected to being required to supply their tenants with the forms, saying that was a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The majority did not address that second argument, and Justice Breyer said there were good reasons to be skeptical of it.
In June, Judge Gary R. Brown of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn rejected the landlords’ arguments even as he acknowledged that they had suffered serious financial hardships.
Judge Brown relied on a 1905 Supreme Court precedent, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which said states could require residents to be vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine. Under that decision, Judge Brown wrote, courts may not second-guess the actions state lawmakers take to address public health crises.
He also rejected the landlords’ First Amendment arguments, saying that government-mandated disclosures and warnings are commonplace in leases, mortgages and other documents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, refused to block the moratorium while the landlords appealed. The landlords then asked the Supreme Court to intervene.
State officials responded that the moratorium was a “temporary pause” set to expire at the end of August. The landlords said the moratorium might well be extended, pointing to recent extension of a federal moratorium.
In June, by a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court let stand a nationwide moratorium imposed by the C.D.C. that had been set to expire at the end of July. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who appeared to cast the decisive vote in that case, wrote in a concurring opinion that any further extension must come from Congress.
Congress failed to act, and the general federal moratorium expired. On Aug. 3, however, the C.D.C. announced a new order barring evictions in many parts of the country, saying that “the evictions of tenants for failure to make rent or housing payments could be detrimental to public health control measures” aimed at slowing the pandemic.
That order, which will expire in early October unless it is extended or blocked in court, applies to regions of the country “experiencing substantial and high levels of community transmission” of the virus. President Biden said the new moratorium was expected to reach 90 percent of Americans who are renters.
Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting.