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Academic highlight: The debate over nationwide injunctions

When, if ever, should courts bar the federal government from enforcing a law against anyone, not just against the plaintiffs in the case before them? Courts have issued these types of orders — often referred to as “nationwide injunctions” — with increasing frequency over the past decade. During President Barack Obama’s administration, district courts issued such injunctions to halt policies granting deferred action to undocumented immigrants and accommodating transgender students in public schools; more recently, injunctions like these temporarily put a stop to President Donald Trump’s travel ban and blocked his rescission of deferred action for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Congress is considering legislation to regulate the practice, and some speculate that the Supreme Court may soon weigh in as well. In the meantime, legal scholars are debating the constitutional, systemic and policy concerns implicated by nationwide injunctions at conferences, during congressional hearings and in the pages of law reviews.

Legal scholars generally agree on few major points. First, the term “nationwide injunction” is misleading. As professor Howard Wasserman suggests, a better name might be “universal injunction,” because the debate is about whether injunctions can require the federal government to cease enforcing a law against nonparties, not whether the injunctions should apply nationwide. Second, these injunctions are a relatively new phenomenon and have been used with increasing frequency over the last decade. Third, nationwide injunctions are nonpartisan — they have been sought by individuals on both sides of the political spectrum to put a stop to policies they oppose. Fourth, nationwide injunctions come with costs that courts should consider carefully before imposing them.

From that common ground, scholars stake out different positions. Professors Samuel Bray, Michael Morley and Wasserman oppose nationwide injunctions in all or most cases. These scholars argue that such injunctions encourage forum shopping and politicize the judiciary, allowing plaintiffs to hand pick a single district-court judge who can then set policy for the nation. (It was no coincidence that Obama’s policies were challenged in the “red state” of Texas, and Trump’s in the “blue states” of California, Hawaii and Maryland.) They observe that nationwide injunctions are inconsistent with a judicial system that denies precedential value to district court decisions and typically requires named plaintiffs to meet class-certification requirements before obtaining relief on a collective basis. They also point out that such rulings put pressure on the Supreme Court to decide cases before they have been thoroughly debated in the lower courts. For all these reasons, these critics argue, courts should enjoin defendants from enforcing a law only against the plaintiffs in a particular case.

Other lawyers and scholars argue that in some cases nationwide injunctions are essential. (Full disclosure: I’m in this camp.) Such injunctions are at times the only way to provide complete relief to plaintiffs. For example, if a single African-American plaintiff sues seeking desegregation of a public school, an order requiring the school district to admit only that plaintiff will not alleviate her injury. Even if class certification is possible in such a case — and there are many barriers to certification — there is no reason a plaintiff should be required to bring a class action to vindicate her individual constitutional rights. And sometimes such injunctions are essential to avoid injury to the thousands of people affected by government action who cannot quickly file suit themselves, or who could not easily be included in a class — as was the case in the travel-ban litigation. Finally, in some cases anything short of a nationwide injunction is simply impractical. When a district court is asked to pass on the validity of an agency rule with nationwide effects — such as one affecting the air or water — it would be extremely difficult to enjoin application of the rule to some plaintiffs but not others.

As professor Suzette Malveaux has argued, nationwide injunctions are also essential to maintaining the balance of power among the three branches of government. Over the last few decades, executive power has expanded as Congress has been mired in gridlock, leading presidents from both parties to make sweeping changes in federal policies through unilateral executive action. These actions often affect thousands of people, many of whom are incapable of quickly filing lawsuits to put a stop to policies that they claim violate their rights. Malveaux argues that a ban on nationwide injunctions “would remove an important check on the executive branch,” further exacerbating the imbalance in power among the three branches.

Closely related to these systemic and policy concerns is the question whether federal courts have the constitutional authority to issue nationwide injunctions. Bray has argued that Article III of the Constitution limits the federal courts to providing remedies only to the plaintiffs, who have demonstrated their standing to sue. On the other hand, equitable remedies like injunctions have never perfectly tracked standing — for example, courts are willing to order prophylactic injunctions to prevent potential future injuries, even when those injuries would not have satisfied the “actual injury” requirement for standing. In any case, the Supreme Court has shown some flexibility when it comes to standing, such as by allowing plaintiffs to raise the rights of others and to bring moot cases to resolve an issue that is “capable of repetition, yet evading review,” and it has permitted associations to sue on behalf of their members.

The Supreme Court’s June 26, 2017, order narrowing, but keeping in place, a nationwide injunction against enforcement of the second version of the Trump administration’s travel ban suggests that the court has yet to see a constitutional problem with nationwide injunctions. As Bray has noted, however, the court has never squarely addressed the issue, and it has an institutional interest in ensuring that legal questions percolate in the lower courts. Now that nationwide injunctions are cropping up in multiple cases, Bray and others predict that the court will take up that question in the near future.

Recommended Citation: Amanda Frost, Academic highlight: The debate over nationwide injunctions, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 1, 2018, 10:21 AM),