Trump Florida District judge Kathryn Mizelle struck down on Easter Monday the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) mask requirement. The rule provides that passengers and employees wear masks on airplanes and other public transport methods because of COVID-19. Based on the CDC’s determination that the rule remains necessary, the Justice Department has appealed. Experts have expressed great concern about the ruling. This is especially because it could limit the CDC’s ability to act in case of future pandemics or if COVID-19 gets worse.
What’s the history and background of the mask requirement?
In late January 2021, when the COVID pandemic was causing serious harm to public health, the CDC issued a rule concerning wearing masks. It required employees and passengers to wear masks on airplanes and other public transport. Although set to expire in mid-April 2022, the CDC extended it until May 3. This would allow the CDC to more fully assess the effects of a new COVID-19 variant that has caused an increase in cases. It would also get America past the Easter-Passover holidays, when many people travel by airplane or train.
Many previous lawsuits to try to immediately stop the mask mandate have failed. As the Justice Department explained in early April, “no court has granted such relief.” This includes the Supreme Court and four federal courts of appeals.
What about the Florida case before Judge Mizelle?
In July 2021, a group calling itself Health Freedom Defense Fund and two frequent passengers challenged the CDC rule in federal court in Tampa Florida. The case was assigned to Judge Kathryn Mizelle, one of the last judges nominated by President Trump. The Republican Senate approved her nomination, even though the ABA had rated her “not qualified” due to lack of experience. The ABA noted that she had never “tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.”
The case proceeded through pre-trial discovery and both sides moved for summary judgment in early 2022. Without even hearing oral argument, Mizelle struck down the mask rule on Easter Monday. This occurred literally in the middle of one of our busiest travel weekends. Among other objections, Mizelle claimed that the CDC had no statutory authority to adopt the rule and to do so without public comment. The ruling took effect immediately across the country.
What is the harm of the decision and what happens next?
The Justice Department quickly announced that it would appeal the decision if the CDC determined that the rule remains necessary “to protect public health.” The CDC made precisely that finding two days after the ruling, and the Justice Department appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
Experts have already criticized the ruling and the harm it threatens to cause. One law professor who has studied the opinion explained that it reads like someone “had decided the case and then tried to dress it up as legal reasoning without actually doing the legal reasoning.” Particularly because of narrow limits on CDC authority, experts “warn it could hobble the government’s ability to control future outbreaks.”
The decision constitutes a clear “misstatement of federal authority in emergencies” that amounted to a “breathtaking amount of political judicial activism” according to several experts. In fact, the appeal risks giving the order “greater precedential value” if affirmed by the very right-wing Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court. Both the short-term and long-term consequences for public health of this Trump judge decision remain seriously harmful.