Two federal judges rebuke USPS over changes it had planned ahead of election

A woman walks past mailboxes seen outside of a US Post Office in Washington, DC on August 17, 2020. By Katelyn Polantz and Devan Cole, CNN

(CNN) -- Two federal judges ruled this week that the US Postal Service must hold on changes it had planned to make ahead of the election over concerns they would slow down mail delivery.

The separate rulings on Sunday and Monday represent the latest times a judge has rebuked USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the Trump administration after several Democratic-led states and others sued over the changes. The agency is under extra scrutiny now that more Americans are set to vote by mail in November's general election because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Gerald McHugh of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled Monday that the Postal Service can't restrict extra or late trips for mail delivery and can't prohibit overtime so its workers can deliver mail.

"As users of the mail who rely on the Postal Service's historic commitment to a policy of 'every piece, every day,' Plaintiffs have been harmed in various and meaningful ways by these changes," McHugh wrote. "That the Postal Service, by its own admission, cannot account for the way communications around late and extra trips have been interpreted in the field and around the country supports the conclusion that the Postal Service's internal operating structure would be a barrier to ensuring that anything but a nationwide injunction could be effectively implemented."

The judge also noted that the Trump administration's approach to the lawsuit hurt their case, making it difficult for him to determine how involved USPS' top leaders were in making policy changes.

"I am troubled by, and draw negative inferences from, what appears to be a strategic effort by Defendants to limit the Court's understanding of the significant degree to which some top officials of the Postal Service were directly involved in the operational changes that went into effect in July. My concern on that score weighs strongly in favor of injunctive relief, to assure that the necessary steps are taken to cure these critical deficits," McHugh wrote.

A day earlier, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the DC District Court put a court order in place stopping USPS from making the changes, saying a coalition of state governments, including New York, "demonstrated that the combination of the reduction of late trips, extra trips and reduced sorting capacity puts the timely delivery of election mail at risk."

Last Thursday, DeJoy said in many cases what the judges decided were changes he already planned to put in place.

Sullivan ruled that while he didn't want to micromanage USPS, this ruling was in the public's interest, particularly during a pandemic.

"It is clearly in the public interest to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, to ensure safe alternatives to in-person voting, and to require that the USPS comply with the law," Sullivan wrote.

The court order said what the USPS was doing had wide effects.

"While it is clear that Congress did not intend for the courts to micromanage the operations of the USPS, requiring the USPS to comply with the statutory requirement that it obtain an advisory opinion from the PRC and provide for notice and comment prior to implementing 'a change in the nature of postal services which will generally affect service on a nationwide or substantially nationwide basis' is not micro-managing; it is requiring the USPS to act within its statutory authority."

A week ago, a federal judge ruled that the Postal Service must prioritize election mail and reverse some key policy changes imposed by DeJoy, saying that "managerial failures" at the agency undermined the public's faith in mail-in voting.

A judge in Washington state ordered many similar changes on the week before and blasted the Trump administration for what he called a "politically motivated attack" on USPS.

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