Congressional Limitation of the Injunctive Power

SECTION 1. The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.


Although some judicial dicta309 support the idea of an inherent power of the federal courts sitting in equity to issue injunctions independently of statutory limitations, neither the course taken by Congress nor the specific rulings of the Supreme Court support any such principle. Congress has repeatedly exercised its power to limit the use of the injunction in federal courts. The first limitation on the equity jurisdiction of the federal courts is to be found in § 16 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided that no equity suit should be maintained where there was a full and adequate remedy at law. Although this provision did no more than declare a pre-existing rule long applied in chancery courts,310 it did assert the power of Congress to regulate the equity powers of the federal courts. The Act of March 2, 1793,311 prohibited the issuance of any injunction by any court of the United States to stay proceedings in state courts except where such injunctions may be authorized by any law relating to bankruptcy proceedings. In subsequent statutes, Congress prohibited the issuance of injunctions in the federal courts to restrain the collection of taxes,312 provided for a three-judge court as a prerequisite to the issuance of injunctions to restrain the enforcement of state statutes for unconstitutionality,313 for enjoining federal statutes for unconstitutionality,314 and for enjoining orders of the Interstate Commerce Commission,315 limited the power to issue injunctions restraining rate orders of state public utility commissions,316 and the use of injunctions in labor disputes,317 and placed a very rigid restriction on the power to enjoin orders of the Administrator under the Emergency Price Control Act.318

Perhaps pressing its powers further than prior legislation, Congress has enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996.319 Essentially, the law imposes a series of restrictions on judicial remedies in prison-conditions cases. Thus, courts may not issue prospective relief that extends beyond that necessary to correct the violation of a federal right that they have found, that is narrowly drawn, is the least intrusive, and that does not give attention to the adverse impact on public safety. Preliminary injunctive relief is limited by the same standards. Consent decrees may not be approved unless they are subject to the same conditions, meaning that the court must conduct a trial and find violations, thus cutting off consent decrees. If a decree was previously issued without regard to the standards now imposed, the defendant or intervenor is entitled to move to vacate it. No prospective relief is to last longer than two years if any party or intervenor so moves. Finally, a previously issued decree that does not conform to the new standards imposed by the Act is subject to termination upon the motion of the defendant or an intervenor. After a short period (30 or 60 days, depending on whether there is “good cause” for a 30-day extension), such a motion operates as an automatic stay of the prior decree pending the court’s decision on the merits. The Court upheld the termination and automatic stay provisions in Miller v. French,320 rejecting the contention that the automatic stay provision offends separation of powers principles by legislative revision of a final judgment. Rather, Congress merely established new standards for the enforcement of prospective relief, and the automatic stay provision “helps to implement the change in the law.”321 A number of constitutional challenges can be expected respecting Congress’s power to limit federal judicial authority to remedy constitutional violations.

All of these restrictions have been sustained by the Supreme Court as constitutional and applied with varying degrees of thoroughness. The Court has made exceptions to the application of the prohibition against the stay of proceedings in state courts,322 but it has on the whole adhered to the statute. The exceptions raise no constitutional issues, and the tendency has been alternately to contract and to expand the scope of the exceptions.323

In Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering,324 the Supreme Court placed a narrow construction upon the labor provisions of the Clayton Act and thereby contributed in part to the more extensive restriction by Congress on the use of injunctions in labor disputes in the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, which has not only been declared constitutional325 but has been applied liberally326 and in such a manner as to repudiate the notion of an inherent power to issue injunctions contrary to statutory provisions.

Injunctions Under the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942.Lockerty v. Phillips327 justifies the same conclusion. Here the validity of the special appeals procedure of the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 was sustained. This act provided for a special Emergency Court of Appeals, which, subject to review by the Supreme Court, was given exclusive jurisdiction to determine the validity of regulations, orders, and price schedules issued by the Office of Price Administration. The Emergency Court and the Emergency Court alone was permitted to enjoin regulations or orders of OPA, and even it could enjoin such orders only after finding that the order was not in accordance with law or was arbitrary or capricious. The Emergency Court was expressly denied power to issue temporary restraining orders or interlocutory decrees, and in addition the effectiveness of any permanent injunction it might issue was to be postponed for thirty days. If review was sought in the Supreme Court by certiorari, effectiveness was to be postponed until final disposition. A unanimous Court, speaking through Chief Justice Stone, declared that there “is nothing in the Constitution which requires Congress to confer equity jurisdiction on any particular inferior federal court.” All federal courts, other than the Supreme Court, it was asserted, derive their jurisdiction solely from the exercise of the authority to ordain and establish inferior courts conferred on Congress by Article III, § 1, of the Constitution. This power, which Congress is left free to exercise or not, was held to include the power “ ‘of investing them with jurisdiction either limited, concurrent, or exclusive, and of withholding jurisdiction from them in the exact degrees and character which to Congress may seem proper for the public good.’”328 Although the Court avoided passing upon the constitutionality of the prohibition against interlocutory decrees, the language of the Court was otherwise broad enough to support it, as was the language of Yakus v. United States,329 which sustained a different phase of the special procedure for appeals under the Emergency Price Control Act.330

309 In United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 339 (1906), Justice Brewer, speaking for the Court, approached a theory of inherent equity jurisdiction when he declared: “The principles of equity exist independently of and anterior to all Congressional legislation, and the statutes are either enunciations of those principles or limitations upon their application in particular cases.” It should be emphasized, however, that the Court made no suggestion that it could apply preexisting principles of equity without jurisdiction over the subject matter. Indeed, the inference is to the contrary. In a dissenting opinion in which Justices McKenna and Van Devanter joined, in Paine Lumber Co. v. Neal, 244 U.S. 459, 475 (1917), Justice Pitney contended that Article III, § 2, “had the effect of adopting equitable remedies in all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States where such remedies are appropriate.”

310 Boyce’s Executors v. Grundy, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 210 (1830).

311 1 Stat. 333, 28 U.S.C. § 2283.

312 26 U.S.C. § 7421(a).

313 This provision was repealed in 1976, save for apportionment and districting suits and when otherwise required by an Act of Congress. Pub. L. 94–381, § 1, 90 Stat. 1119, and § 3, 28 U.S.C. § 2284. Congress occasionally provides for such courts, as in the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973c.

314 Repealed by Pub. L. 94–381, § 2, 90 Stat. 1119 (1976). Congress occasionally provides for such courts now, in order to expedite Supreme Court consideration of constitutional challenges to critical federal laws. See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 719–721 (1986) (3-judge court and direct appeal to Supreme Court in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985).

315 Repealed by Pub. L. 93–584, § 7, 88 Stat. 1918.

316 28 U.S.C. § 1342.

317 29 U.S.C. §§ 52, 101–110.

318 56 Stat. 31, 204 (1942).

319 The statute was part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act signed by the President on April 26, 1996. Pub. L. 104–134, §§ 801–10, 110 Stat. 1321–66—1321–77, amending 18 U.S.C. § 3626.

320 530 U.S. 327 (2000).

321 530 U.S. at 348.

322 Freeman v. Howe, 65 U.S. (24 How.) 450 (1861); Gaines v. Fuentes, 92 U.S. 10 (1876); Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908).

323 See, Anti-Injunction Statute, infra.

324 254 U.S. 443 (1921).

325 Lauf v. E. G. Shinner & Co., 303 U.S. 323 (1938); New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 303 U.S. 552 (1938).

326 In addition to Lauf and New Negro Alliance,see Drivers’ Union v. Valley Co., 311 U.S. 91, 100–103 (1940), and compare Sinclair Refining Co. v. Atkinson, 370 U.S. 195 (1962), with Boys Markets v. Retail Clerks Union, 398 U.S. 235 (1970).

327 319 U.S. 182 (1943).

328 319 U.S. at 187 (quoting Cary v. Curtis, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 236, 245 (1845). See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 331–332 (1966), upholding a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made the district court for the District of Columbia the only avenue of relief for States seeking to remove the coverage of the Act.

329 321 U.S. 414 (1944). But compare Adamo Wrecking Co. v. United States, 434 U.S. 275 (1978) (construing statute in way to avoid the constitutional issue raised in Yakus). In United States v. Mendoza-Lopez, 481 U.S. 828 (1987), the Court held that, when judicial review of a deportation order had been precluded, due process required that the alien be allowed to make a collateral challenge to the use of that proceeding as an element of a subsequent criminal proceeding.

330 Ch. 26, 56 Stat. 31, § 204 (1942).

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