In the latest blow to common sense, public health, and the proper functioning of government, Florida district court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the administration’s transportation mask mandate in an order issued Monday. At last, our long national nightmare is over, and we’re all free to move about the cabin breathing on everyone with no pesky COVID-19 mitigation measures coming between anyone!
First, though, a few words about Mizelle. Even in a crowded field of inexperienced Trump appointees rammed through the Senate for their Federalist Society credentials, Mizelle really stands out. When she was nominated in late 2020, she was 33 years old, and only finished law school in 2012. Given that she had literally never tried a criminal or civil case in federal court, the American Bar Association unsurprisingly rated her as not qualified. The sum total of her trial experience was two days in state court as a student attorney with a law school professor supervising her.
What Mizelle did have, though, is boundless potential for hackery, particularly of the variety that seeks to put business interests over public health. In her brief career at Jones Day—a law firm best known for its connections to Trump and the conservative legal movement—she helped represent the Chamber of Commerce, which opposed a request from labor groups that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration create COVID-19 safety procedures for workers. Mizelle also clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas after clerking for one of his feeder judges, Judge William Pryor, so her conservative bona fides were unimpeachable even if her experience was next to non-existent.
This week, Mizelle deployed her keen legal reasoning to determine that it is not within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s purview to impose basic disease mitigation measures such as masks. In an order that reads like that of a particularly long-winded law student, she marched through not one, not two, but three dictionaries to determine that the word “sanitation” cannot encompass face masks, because face masks don’t clean anything. “At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance,” she writes. Mizelle engages in some equally tortured logic to assert that a person denied access to a plane for refusing to wear a mask is “detained or partially quarantined.” (She uses Black’s Law Dictionary to define “detention,” in case you were wondering.)
In the end, it doesn’t really matter how Mizelle got to her terrible conclusions, because she was always going to arrive at them one way or another. She’s on the bench to help lead a retrograde revolution that drags the country back to the halcyon days of the Lochner era, where the Court pumped out 40 years’ worth of opinions striking down regulations that might have made life better and safer for workers. Back in January, the Supreme Court blocked OSHA’s vaccine requirement for large private employers. A Texas district court judge is on an absolutely unhinged quest to force the military to let unvaccinated sailors deploy. Although the Court did just rule against the Air Force colonel who didn’t want the vaccine because he believed it “took on a symbolic and even sacramental quality,” they might have done so just because it sounded weird.
Conservatives want the Lochner era back because they want power to shift away from the government and to corporations. Blocking the executive branch from taking regulatory action leads to no action, as Congress is not well-situated to legislate quickly or staffed by experts on complicated subjects like droplet transmission and disease control. The executive branch is the part of government best suited to address these things, and the courts, time and again, are telling them their hands are tied.
Within a few hours of Mizelle’s ruling, airlines dropped their mask requirements and the Biden administration announced that it would no longer require TSA to enforce the mandate, even as COVID-19 cases nationally are back on the rise, Thanks to a life-tenured judge with a dictionary fetish instead of actual experience, one of the simplest, cheapest tools that could help save lives is now optional.