In a win for personal freedom and a blow to overreaching federal agencies, a federal judge has vacated (i.e., ruled invalid) the travel mask mandate issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2021. The judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by two airline travelers and a consumer group that the agency exceeded its authority and violated federal laws requiring a public notice and comment period before issuing its mandate.

Judge Kathryn Kimbal Mizelle, a federal district court judge in Tampa, Florida, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2020, issued her ruling on April 18, right in the middle of a 15-day extension of the mandate that runs through May 3. The February 2021 masking order applied to airplanes, trains and other forms of transportation.

The judge examined the law governing the CDC’s authority granted by Congress under the Public Health Service Act, which permits the agency to issue regulations aimed at “identifying, isolating, and destroying” diseases.

Other provisions in the Act provide the CDC with the limited power to “apprehend, detain, examine, or provide conditions for the release of individuals coming into a state or possession from a foreign country, or traveling between states.” In the latter case of interstate travel, the CDC is only empowered to act when it “reasonably believes” that a person is “infected with a communicable disease” and is a “probably source of infection” to others.

In her 59-page opinion, Judge Mizelle found nothing in the Public Health Service Act justifying the CDC’s mask mandate. Under certain circumstances, the CDC has the authority to detain an individual traveling between states, but only if he is “reasonably believed to be infected” and is actually found “upon examination” to be infected.”

“The Mask Mandate complies with neither of these subsections,” Mizelle ruled.

Nor can the CDC simply dispense with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act regarding agency rulemaking, which requires at least a 30-day period for public notice and comment. And, the judge said, even though there are emergency exceptions to that requirement, the CDC didn’t adequately offer “good cause” to justify foregoing the notice and comment requirements.

In the end, the judge said, while it “is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of COVID-19 … the Mandate exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority, improperly invoked the good cause exception to notice and comment rulemaking, and failed to adequately explain its decisions.

“Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the Court declares unlawful and vacates the Mask Mandate.”

The federal government may appeal the decision, especially if it wants to keep its current 15-day extension in place or hope to impose future extensions.

The case is Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc. v. Biden.

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