Washington, DC - When a federal court issues an order against enforcement of a government policy, the ruling traditionally applies only to the plaintiff in that case. Over the past several decades, however, some lower court federal judges have increasingly resorted to a procedural device—the “nationwide injunction”—to prevent the government from enforcing a policy against anyone in the country.
Shrewd lawyers have learned to “shop” for a sympathetic judge willing to issue such an injunction. These days, virtually every significant congressional or presidential initiative is enjoined—often within hours—threatening our democratic system and undermining the rule of law.
The best example of the harm done by these nationwide injunctions is the current litigation over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In 2012, after Congress repeatedly failed to grant legal status to so-called Dreamers, the Obama administration declined to enforce the immigration laws against them. Five years later, the Trump administration announced it would restore enforcement of federal law, prompting Democrats to negotiate in search of a broad solution. Just as a compromise appeared near, a district court judge in San Francisco entered a nationwide injunction prohibiting the Trump administration from ending DACA, thus awarding the Democrats by judicial fiat what they had been seeking through a political compromise.
Far from solving the problem, the DACA injunction proved catastrophic. The program’s recipients remain in legal limbo after nearly two years of bitter political division over immigration, including a government shutdown. A humanitarian crisis—including a surge of unaccompanied children—swells at the southern border, while legislative efforts remain frozen pending Supreme Court resolution of the DACA case.
Proponents of nationwide injunctions argue that they are necessary to ensure that the law is uniform throughout the country. But the federal judiciary wasn’t made to produce instant legal uniformity. To the contrary, the system—in which local district courts are supervised by regional courts of appeal—was constructed to allow a diversity of initial rulings until a single, national rule could be decided by the Supreme Court.
This system has many virtues. It prevents a solitary, unelected, life-tenured judge from overriding the political branches and imposing on the nation potentially idiosyncratic or mistaken views of the law. A Supreme Court justice must convince at least four colleagues to bind the federal government nationwide, whereas a district court judge issuing a nationwide injunction needn’t convince anyone.
Nationwide injunctions “are legally and historically dubious,” noted Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring in Trump v. Hawaii (2018). “If federal courts continue to issue them, this Court is dutybound to adjudicate their authority to do so.” It is indeed well past time for our judiciary to re-examine a practice that embitters the political life of the nation, flouts constitutional principles, and stultifies sound judicial administration, all at the cost of public confidence in our institutions.