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Federal judge strikes down mask mandate for planes

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A federal judge in Florida issued an order on Monday voiding the national mask mandate covering airports, planes and other public travel.

In a 59-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle concluded that the masking regulation enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February 2021 “exceeded the CDC's statutory authority,” and that its mandate was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The decision effectively vacates the temporary federal requirement for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, buses and other forms of public transportation.

A masked traveler walks through Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
A sign at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A White House official said in an emailed statement that federal agencies were reviewing the decision, but added that, "TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time."

United Airlines and Alaska Airlines both issued statements saying mask wearing is now optional.

Last week, the CDC extended the mask mandate through May 3, saying it needed more time to gather data on the BA.2 Omicron subvariant of COVID-19, which has led to a recent surge in cases across the country.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called it a "disappointing" decision and said the CDC was still reviewing the ruling while encouraging Americans to continue wearing masks while traveling. When pressed on whether travelers were currently required to wear masks, Psaki said they were waiting for guidance from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

The ruling was welcomed by some conservative Republicans.

“Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate,” tweeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis following the ruling. “Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end.”

The suit was filed last July against President Biden, the CDC and various administration officials by a legal group known as Health Freedom Defense Fund and airline passengers, including Ana Daza, who said she has anxiety aggravated by wearing masks.

In her ruling, Mizelle said the CDC had failed to prove its argument that it put the mask requirement in place for the purpose of “sanitation.”

“Wearing a mask cleans nothing,” Mizelle wrote. “At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”

​​“It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of COVID-19,” Mizelle added. “In pursuit of that end, the CDC issued the mask mandate. But the mandate exceeded the CDC statutory authority.”

Official portrait of U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle.
U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle. (U.S. Federal Government)

Mizelle was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed to a lifetime appointment by the Senate on Nov. 18, 2020, along a party-line vote, with 49 Republicans voting in favor and 41 Democrats voting against. At 33, she became the youngest judge to be nominated by Trump, just eight years after graduating from law school at the University of Florida.

At the time of her nomination, the American Bar Association wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee and said that a “substantial majority” of the group’s standing committee — which evaluates candidates’ “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament” — found Mizelle to be “not qualified” for the position, citing her lack of trial experience.

“Since her admission to the bar Ms. Mizelle has not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel,” wrote Randall Noel, the standing committee’s chairman, concluding, “Ms. Mizelle has a very keen intellect, a strong work ethic and an impressive résumé. She presents as a delightful person and she has many friends who support her nomination. Her integrity and demeanor are not in question. These attributes, however, simply do not compensate for the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience.”

Prior to her appointment, Mizelle clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife was involved in attempts to contest the results of the 2020 presidential election, including attending the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. Mizelle then worked in private practice for Jones Day, the firm that represented the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020, although it later tried to distance itself from the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Mizelle is also a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian legal group whose members currently hold a majority of Supreme Court seats. Her husband, Chad Mizelle, served as a counsel for the Trump White House, and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

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