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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Indivisibility, incidentality, and universality

A judge in the Southern District of New York universally enjoined Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from adding to the census a question about citizenship. The court addressed the government's attempts to squeeze the case into the debate over universal injunctions and to limit the injunction only to the plaintiffs, but found it an "odd fit." The court explained that "these cases do not involve the case-by-case enforcement of a particular policy or statute. Instead, it concerns a single decision about a single questionnaire, to be used on a single census throughout the nation." The alternative for Ross would be to use two census forms (one as to the people covered by the injunction, one as to everyone else), but that might violate both federal statutes and the Constitution and cause the harms (in terms of funding and representation) that the state plaintiffs complain about.

Without saying so, the court is describing a situation of an indivisible right and indivisible remedy. The only remedy protecting the named plaintiffs necessarily protects non-plaintiffs, because the proper census form is issued to everyone, plaintiff and non-plaintiff. This case is analogous to a gerrymander challenge to a congressional district--the remedy of redrawing the district cannot be limited to the plaintiff, but must protect everyone within the district. Or a challenge to a religious display--the remedy of removing the display cannot be limited to the plaintiff, but must protected everyone who also would come in contact with the display.

But such injunctions should not be understood as universal, in the sense of protecting non-parties. They are better understood as protecting the plaintiffs while incidentally benefiting non-parties. The difference may seem semantic, but it is procedurally significant. A person protected by an injunction can seek to enforce the injunction through a motion to enforce and a motion to hold the government in contempt. But that power should be limited to the parties who control the litigation. My framing does not change much about the injunction in this case--Ross is prohibited from issuing a census form containing a citizenship question. What changes is if Ross tried to make the two-form move: Only the parties could move to stop that as violating the injunction, not the non-parties incidentally protected.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 15, 2019 at 12:26 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

How do you see this working out in practice? Suppose the named plaintiffs happened to die could Ross then revert to the other census form until another lawsuit enforces a similar injunction?

Seems to me that from a practical (rather than formalist) viewpoint goals of consistency and non-arbitrariness are better served by simply issuing a universal injunction in cases with an indivisible right while imposing no greater costs.

I mean I can see the argument in cases with divisible remedies but practically speaking aren't we strictly better off using universal injunctions in cases with indivisible remedies? I presume you'll disagree but I'm wondering why.

Posted by: Peter Gerdes | Jan 21, 2019 10:07:38 PM

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