Two different courts, on opposite coasts, ruled in opposite directions on Friday. A Boston federal court affirmed Trump’s executive order as “bona fide”; a Seattle federal court enjoined it. Both spoke to requests for “nationally” effective rulings. Can federal courts give conflicting directions to government employees? Did Homeland predict this in their screenplays?
The Seattle decision overstepped the traditional boundaries of district court authority, especially when sister courts are ruling on the same issues. Both the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit warned against issuing a national order in just these kind of cases.
Unlike state courts, federal courts enjoy the possibility of national reach in their decision. Due to the risk of conflicting decisions within the courts, venue-shopping by litigants (note how the ACLU, CAIR and the Attorney Generals aren’t suing in any Trump states), and the interference with the executive branch of government in their daily duties, the Supreme Court established precedents — precedents being what constitutes “evidence” for lawyers about what the law says — to limit this problem from occurring.
First, the Supreme Court warned against issuing any relief not individually and specifically necessary to the plaintiffs before the court. Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 702 (1979). The Seattle judge’s ruling goes way beyond that, trying to apply his order to people all around the world. It appears the Seattle judge thinks the people voted him President of the United States. Welcome to the ego of federal judges.
Second, the Supreme Court warned against issuing any such relief against the executive branch, especially in military, immigration, or foreign policy concerns, given how precarious such orders can threaten security, and interfere with day-to-day functions of the executive branch.
Noting that “neither declaratory nor injunctive relief can directly interfere with enforcement of contested statutes or ordinances except with respect to the particular federal plaintiffs,” the Supreme Court warned against extending its reach beyond “the particular federal plaintiffs” in the case. Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422 U.S. 922 (1975). The Seattle order tries to apply itself to millions of people around the globe. And folks think only brain surgeons look in the mirror and see God.
Third, as the Ninth Circuit, that governs the Seattle court, repeatedly ruled: a federal court should not issue rulings beyond its jurisdiction when other courts have also issued rulings on the matter. AMC Entm’t 549 F.3d at 770. The “principles of comity” compel that a court should not grant national relief when doing so would “create tensions” with courts in other circuits and “would encourage forum shopping.” The Ninth Circuit further reinforced that: “A federal court…may not attempt to determine the rights of parties not before the court”. What kind of case was that the Ninth Circuit said not to extend your ruling beyond the plaintiffs in front of you? An immigration case. Zepeda v. INS, 753 F.2d 719, 727 (9th Cir. 1983); Nat’l Cir. for Immigration Rights v. INS, 743 F.2d 1365 (9th Cir. 1984).
The Supreme Court already reversed an order just like the Seattle order. In 1993, a few folks challenged the don’t ask, don’t tell restrictions on gays in the military. Shock, shock, they filed the suit on the west coast. Shock, shock, a liberal judge tried to convert it into a national injunction. Guess what happened? The Supreme Court reversed, issuing a stay of all parts of the injunction that “granted relied to persons other than the named plaintiff.” Dep’t of Defense v. Meinhold, 510 U.S. 939 (1993). Notably, that decision to stay the injunction was 9-to-0, unanimous. That is how obvious the precedents — the evidence of the law — is in this instance.
Just like every Senator looks in the mirror and sees a President, many federal judges look in the mirror and see a philsopher-king who the world should accept as a benevolent ruler. They aren’t. His biggest name to fame has been controversial rulings and statements in the Amherst expulsion case and a black lives matter controversy. Judge Robart might make an interesting President. But America didn’t elect him President. He’s never been elected to anything. His judicial superiors are about to remind him of that.
Robert Barnes is a California -based trial attorney whose practice focuses on tax defense, civil rights and First Amendment law. You can follow him at @Barnes_Law.
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.