- Justice Neil Gorsuch invoked the infamous One Ring of the dark lord Sauron in a short opinion urging the high court to consider curtailing nationwide injunctions.
- A nationwide injunction is a judicial order that bars enforcement of a particular policy across the country. Such orders have repeatedly stalled Trump administration priorities.
- Gorsuch said such injunctions may exceed the power the Constitution grants to federal courts.
Justice Neil Gorsuch invoked J.R.R. Tolkien’s tri-part epic “The Lord of the Rings” in a Monday concurrence that suggested the Supreme Court may need to curtail the use of nationwide injunctions.
Gorsuch likened nationwide injunctions to the One Ring, an artifact of malevolent power whose destruction is the driving action of Tolkien’s saga. The justice alluded to the ring as he reviewed the history of litigation regarding the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which will take effect after the high court lifted two injunctions entered against it Monday afternoon.
A lengthy inscription on the band proclaims that the One Ring shall “rule them all.” Gorsuch found that domineering promise an apt descriptor for nationwide injunctions, which remain in force regardless of the outcome of other lawsuits on a given subject.
“Despite the fluid state of things — some interim wins for the government over here, some preliminary relief for plaintiffs over there — we now have an injunction to rule them all: the one before us, in which a single judge in New York enjoined the government from applying the new definition to anyone, without regard to geography or participation in this or any other lawsuit,” Gorsuch wrote.
Nationwide injunctions exceed judicial power, Gorsuch says
Gorsuch argued that nationwide injunctions raise fundamental questions about judicial power. The Constitution does not give federal judges freestanding authority to strike down laws or award damages. Instead, the courts are empowered to resolve specific “cases and controversies” that unfold in the real world between adversarial parties.
Since the judicial power extends to those particular disputes, it follows that courts only have power to bind the parties before them, Gorsuch said. But when a judge-ordered remedy reaches beyond a particular case, Gorsuch suggested courts are transformed from venues for dispute resolution into something else entirely.
“When a district court orders the government not to enforce a rule against the plaintiffs in the case before it, the court redresses the injury that gives rise to its jurisdiction in the first place,” Gorsuch wrote. “But when a court goes further than that, ordering the government to take (or not take) some action with respect to those who are strangers to the suit, it is hard to see how the court could still be acting in the judicial role of resolving cases and controversies.”
What’s more, Gorsuch said nationwide injunctions are contrary to our legal tradition. When new legal questions emerge, many different lower courts reach their own conclusions — sometimes divergent — over a long period of time.
In turn, higher courts review those results, then announce controlling principles for future cases. The hope is that higher courts can issue quality, well-informed decisions with the benefit of multiple inputs from the lower courts.
Nationwide injunctions interrupt that process, Gorsuch said, turning ordinary disputes into emergencies.
“By their nature, universal injunctions tend to force judges into making rushed, high-stakes, low-information decisions,” Gorsuch wrote.
“The rise of nationwide injunctions may just be a sign of our impatient times,” he added. “But good judicial decisions are usually tempered by older virtues.” (RELATED: The Supreme Court Looks Ready To Allow More State Aid For Religious Schools)
Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined Gorsuch’s Monday opinion, sounded similar notes in a concurrence to the 2018 travel ban decision. Like the public charge rule, the administration’s travel sanctions were subject to multiple nationwide injunctions.
“These injunctions did not emerge until a century and a half after the founding,” Thomas wrote. “And they appear to be inconsistent with longstanding limits on equitable relief and the power of Article III courts. If their popularity continues, this Court must address their legality.”
Trump administration searches for solution
Nationwide injunctions have beset the Trump administration since the president took office. By the Justice Department’s telling, the federal courts have entered about 40 injunctions against the executive branch since 2017. In contrast, only 27 nationwide injunctions were issued in the entire 20th century.
Vice President Mike Pence said that the administration would look for an appropriate case to challenge nationwide injunctions in the Supreme Court during a May 2019 speech to a Federalist Society conference in Washington, D.C.
The question cannot reach the high court on its own. Rather, the justices can only address the question if it is part of an ongoing dispute.
That could leave the government in something of a bind, however, as it raises the possibility the administration would have to lose a case on the merits in order for the justices to reach the injunction question.
That’s because the high court has no reason to decide on an injunction when the government wins and successfully defends its policy. If the challengers lose, they aren’t entitled to anything. Only after the challengers prevail is the question of a remedy relevant.
Liberals and conservatives alike have obtained nationwide injunctions to attain their litigation goals.
Republican state attorneys general used such orders to good effect in the waning days of the Obama administration. Those injunctions, obtained from right-leaning trial courts in places like Texas, blocked an Obama-era policy on transgender bathrooms and a companion initiative to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
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