The Biden Administration is weighing a tough decision: whether to appeal the federal court decision striking down the mask mandate the federal government imposed on air and train travelers during the COVID pandemic. It’s a very tough decision on both legal and political grounds.
According to news reports, the Justice Department will appeal the court ruling if the CDC decides that the mask mandate is still necessary to protect public health. That’s a bit strange, in a way, because the CDC decided only last week, just before the court ruling, that the mask mandate should be extended for an additional 15 days, until May 3, to allow the CDC to assess the impact of yet another COVID subvariant. It seems as though the DOJ is punting the decision to the CDC and, perhaps, hoping that the CDC will change course, decide that public health now doesn’t require an extension, and allow the DOJ to cite that determination in electing not to appeal. In the meantime, the DOJ won’t pursue an immediate stay of the federal court’s decision, which means that the mask mandate won’t be enforced unless and until an appeal occurs and the appellate court rules to the contrary.
The legal and political stakes in the decision on a potential appeal are high. Legally, the issue is whether the federal government wants to take the risk that a higher court will agree with the district court judge and establish a firmer precedent that the CDC doesn’t have the kind of sweeping power it has exercised over the past two years. Some people describe the district court decision as a poorly reasoned “legal disaster,” while others contend it is a reasonable interpretation of statutory text that simply was not intended to authorize an administrative agency to unilaterally impose nationwide mask mandates. Regardless of how you come out on that issue, for now the decision is simply the opinion of a single district court judge. If an appeal occurs, the federal government runs the risk of an adverse decision by a federal court of appeals and, potentially, the Supreme Court–raising the possibility that, if the nation’s highest court agrees with the federal district court judge in this case, the CDC’s ability to issue future public health mandates could be eliminated, unless and until Congress decides to amend the statute to clarify what is permitted.
Politically, the stakes are equally high because there are strong feelings on both sides of the masking issue. News reports in the wake of the federal court decision reported pro and con comments from travelers about the decision, while videos of cheering passengers removing their masks mid-flight appeared on social media. Whatever decision the federal government makes is likely to upset one faction or the other, leaving the Biden Administration at risk of being labeled irresponsible in its stewardship of public health, or a lily-livered adherent to pointless governmental paternalism. No politician would be happy about either of those outcomes. On the other hand, if the CDC suddenly decides that, under the current circumstances, the mask mandate is no longer needed to protect public health, it has provided the Biden Administration with some political cover–and those who want to wear masks will of course be permitted to do so.
It would be interesting to know whether, behind the scenes, the Biden Administration is encouraging the CDC to move in one direction or another. It’s hard for politicians to restrain themselves from politicking. We’ll never know for sure, because if that information came out it would undercut the depiction of the CDC as the neutral, objective, apolitical entity that is focused solely on scientific and medical evidence and the public health.