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Federal judge in Pennsylvania joins chorus of courts barring USPS from delivery cuts

In this Aug. 18 photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mailbox in Omaha. (Nati Harnik/AP)

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ordered the U.S. Postal Service to temporarily suspend operational changes tied to mail slowdowns across the country, writing Monday that the delays “clearly pose a threat to the delivery of Election Mail to and from the voters.”

The injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Gerald Austin McHugh for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is the fourth such ruling against the agency in 11 days. Federal courts in Washington state, New York and the District of Columbia also have prohibited the Postal Service from adhering to cost-cutting measures enacted under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, such as stricter dispatch schedules that forced postal workers to leave mail behind. Managers also cracked down on overtime, though DeJoy said he had nothing to do with such orders.

Attorneys general from at least 19 states have sued DeJoy and the agency over the changes.

“The declines in service that resulted from the initiatives have not been fully remedied and pose a threat to the operation of the November 2020 elections,” McHugh wrote in an 89-page memo accompanying his order. McHugh also required the Postal Service to give the court periodic reports about overtime use.

Third U.S. judge bars Postal Service delivery cuts before November presidential election

Partisan tensions are running high ahead of an election in which an unprecedented number of Americans are projected to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer on Monday declined to comment on the Pennsylvania ruling. He said in a statement that “delivering Election Mail is our number one priority, and that we are 100 percent committed throughout the Postal Service to fulfilling our vital role in the nation’s electoral process by securely and timely delivering all ballots pursuant to our long-established processes and procedures.”

In a statement, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the injunction “a major victory.”

Six states — Pennsylvania, Delaware, California, Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina — and the District sued the Postal Service last month, alleging the operational changes under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy were so sweeping that they needed clearance from the Postal Regulatory Commission. The jurisdictions also alleged the timing of the shifts — part of DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures — infringed on their constitutional authority to operate the nation’s elections.

McHugh did not rule on the merits of those claims but halted mail changes until the case can be resolved.

“In numerous instances, these efficiencies came at the cost of timely delivery of mail,” McHugh concluded after reviewing depositions, internal Postal Service documents and presentations.

Internal USPS documents link changes behind mail slowdowns to top executives

McHugh wrote there was not enough evidence to conclude the postal changes were politically motivated, in part because of “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.”

Three other courts have ruled against the agency this month. On Sept. 17, Stanley A. Bastian, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, blocked the Postal Service from decommissioning additional sorting machines or mailboxes, curtailing retail hours, closing sorting plants or implementing a strict transportation schedule. Days later, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in the Southern District of New York ordered the agency to treat election mail as first-class, regardless of postage, and to preapprove all overtime between Oct. 26 and Nov. 6. On Sunday, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia barred the Postal Service from following through on service cuts before November presidential election.

Monday’s order comes as the agency is said to be closing in on a settlement with 19 states on election mail and service delays, according to people familiar with the discussions. Such a settlement would resolve cases filed in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington.

Postal Service backlog sparks worries that ballot delivery could be delayed in November

In his memo, McHugh dissected the Postal Service’s claims that the operational changes were not intended to create a national shift in mail delivery. Justice Department lawyers had argued that DeJoy’s changes were managerial decisions and that the mail delays resulted from an “incorrect understanding of national policy.”

Jacob Bogage contributed to this report.