U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle said the mandate was unlawful because it exceeded the statutory authority of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and because its implementation violated administrative law.
It is unclear clear how quickly the ruling will be implemented at airports or train stations across the country, or if the Justice Department will seek an order halting the ruling and file an appeal.
Just last week, the CDC extended this mask mandate through May 3. The masking requirement applied to airplanes, trains, and other forms of public transportation.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said last week that part of the reason for the extension of the transportation mask mandate was because of rising Covid-19 cases and settings created by travel.
“We bring a lot of people together in a closed setting for a prolonged period of time, and not everyone has the option to not travel,” Murthy said on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio’s Doctor Radio Reports, giving examples such as traveling on a plane to see a sick mother or traveling for work to keep a job. “Because it’s not necessarily an optional setting for people and because, again, folks are together for a long period of time, that’s why the CDC has leaned into being cautious there and recommending that people continue to wear those masks.”
The White House, the Department of Homeland Security and CDC did not immediately comment on the ruling.
Judge compares enforcement to ‘detention and quarantine’
Mizelle concluded that that the use of the word in the statute was limited to “measures that clean something.”
“Wearing a mask cleans nothing,” she wrote. “At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”
She wrote that the mandate fell outside of the law because “the CDC required mask wearing as a measure to keep something clean-explaining that it limits the spread of COVID-19 through prevention, but never contending that it actively destroys or removes it. “
Mizelle suggested that the government’s implementation of the mandate-in which non-complying travelers are “forcibly removed from their airplane seats, denied board at the bus steps, and turned away at the train station doors”-was akin to “detention and quarantine, “which are not contemplated in the section of the law in question, she said.
“As a result, the Mask Mandate is best understood not as sanitation, but as an exercise of the CDC’s power to conditionally release individuals to travel despite concerns that they may spread a communicable disease (and to detain or partially quarantine those who refuse), “she wrote. “But the power to conditionally release and detain is ordinarily limited to individuals entering the United States from a foreign country.”
She added that the mandate also did not fit with a section of the law that would allow for detention of a traveler if he was, upon examination, found to be infected.
“The Mask Mandate complies with neither of these subsections,” the judge said. “It applies to all travelers regardless of their origins or destinations and makes no attempt to sort based on their health.”
Mizelle was appointed to the federal court in late 2020 by then-President Donald Trump.
Previous lawsuits had failed
Other lawsuits that have been filed targeting the mandate – and the directive to enforce it by the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Administration – have failed to succeed in blocking it.
“The Supreme Court has thrice rejected that relief, and so has every Court of Appeals to consider the issue – that is, the Fourth, Eighth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits – as well as the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida, “the Justice Department said in that case, referring to an earlier lawsuit brought in Florida’s Middle District. “No court has granted such relief, and not a single Judge or Justice has noted their dissent from any of these orders.”
Unlike those other cases where judges were weighing emergency or preliminary orders, Mizelle was considering the legality of the mandate on the merits.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.