A federal judge in Philadelphia granted a request on Monday to block changes to the U.S. Postal Service that have slowed mail deliveries, citing the potential for “irreparable harm” as large numbers of voters prepare to cast ballots by mail.

Judge Gerald McHugh of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s decision to eliminate extra transportation and overtime, as well as remove mail processing equipment, have posed a threat to states' abilities to conduct a fair election.

The Postal Service’s “ability to fulfill its mission during a presidential election taking place in the midst of a public health crisis is vital,” McHugh wrote in his 87 pages of remarks following Thursday’s three-hour hearing at Philadelphia’s federal courthouse. “The record in this case strongly supports the conclusion that irreparable harm will result unless its ability to operate is assured.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro led the lawsuit, which named DeJoy and Robert Duncan, chairman of the USPS board of governors. The suit was joined by Delaware; California; the District of Columbia; Maine; Massachusetts, and North Carolina. In total, attorneys general from more than 20 states have sued DeJoy over the changes.

Tim Miller, retired union rep., stands and holds a sign reading “U.S. Mail, Not For Sale,” during a save-the-Postal Service rally in front of a U.S. Post Office along Market Street in Center City in August.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Tim Miller, retired union rep., stands and holds a sign reading “U.S. Mail, Not For Sale,” during a save-the-Postal Service rally in front of a U.S. Post Office along Market Street in Center City in August.

“This is a major victory and confirms — for every senior who has not received their timely shipment of prescription drugs and every voter who needs the reliable delivery of their mail-in ballots — that Postmaster General DeJoy was making false promises,” Shapiro said in a statement. “The Postal Service cannot make random, negative changes that affect Pennsylvanians' daily lives, and the court is helping to ensure that everyone has full faith in the Postal Service at this critical time."

Pennsylvania counties have begun mailing ballots to voters, with hundreds of thousands expected to be mailed this week.

The order marks the fourth such federal court ruling this month. On Sept. 17, Stanley A. Bastian, chief judge of the Eastern District of Washington state, was the first to grant the injunction, blocking DeJoy’s limits on delivery trips and decommissioning of sorting machines across the country.

Four days later, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York City ruled similarly, ordering that election mail be treated as first class and that all overtime be approved within a two-week window of the election. Then, on Sunday, federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington sided with New York, Hawaii, and New Jersey, and the cities of New York and San Francisco, in another ruling.

The lawsuits were brought forward after mail delays spread across the country this summer, including in Philadelphia, where some residents reported going upward of three weeks without mail, leaving them without important medications and paychecks. The delays stemmed from operational changes made in July, in which DeJoy eliminated extra transportation and slashed workers' hours to cut costs. These changes, coupled with a staffing shortage and a surge in packages as people ordered goods online amid the pandemic, caused mail to pile up in local offices.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill in August.
Tom Williams / AP
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill in August.

Lawyers from Pennsylvania’s Office of the Attorney General argued that the changes were made illegally because DeJoy changed operations without first seeking approval from the Postal Regulatory Commission.

McHugh said that “these policy changes resulted in mail being left behind — until that point a ‘cardinal sin’ among the 600,000 employees of the Postal Service." Postal records show that the agency was meeting its service standards for first-class mail roughly 92% of the time in May 2020, the month before DeJoy took over. By August, it had dropped to 81%.

“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,” he wrote.

McHugh’s ruling adopted the orders of Bastian and Marrero, and ordered that the changes be reversed “unless and until the Postal Service presents such changes to the Postal Regulatory Commission and obtains an advisory opinion after a public hearing is held.”

A Department of Justice lawyer representing the USPS argued that the changes were made at the hands of local managers, not at the order of national executives. He said that the memos, emails, PowerPoints, and meetings that tell employees to leave on time, whether all mail has been delivered or not, were merely suggestions, not official policy changes.

McHugh disagreed, and saw the various records directly tying top postal executives to the decisions, as proof that the changes came from USPS headquarters.