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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Universal consent decrees

Two U Conn students who were prosecuted and sanctioned by the university for violating the school policy against "disruptive behavior" for uttering a racial slur have filed suit in the District of Connecticut, claiming the school sanctions violate the First Amendment. (H/T: Eugene Volokh). The case should be easy as a First Amendment matter--the students seem to have shouted the slur into the ether, not directed at anyone and not accompanied by any threatening conduct.

But it is procedurally interesting, potentially complicated, and seemingly wrong. After the jump.

In 1990, U. Conn. entered a consent decree in a lawsuit brought by a then-student named Nina Wu, who was sanctioned for saying "no homos" on a board on her dorm-room door. The consent decree permanently enjoined U. Conn. from enforcing a provision of its student code "against this plaintiff or any other student." This is a universal injunction, protecting the universe of U. Conn. students (or it is at least non-particularized). I would argue the court cannot and should not issue such an injunction. The completeness of Nina Wu's remedy is unaffected what might happen to do students 30 years later--that is, students who were not born at the time of the injunction. On the other hand, U. Conn. could have entered the consent decree with Wu, then voluntarily altered its conduct and declined to enforce the provision against any other student (which is what usually happens). But this case offers a third option--U. Conn. voluntarily bound itself to non-enforcement as to non-parties as a matter of an enforceable judicial order. Can a defendant do this? Can the court do it if the defendant agrees? Can a court enforce it as it would a properly scoped injunction?

The plaintiffs frame their case, at least in part, as an attempt to enforce the consent decree. They allege in ¶ 8 that they have standing to enforce the decree because of its stated scope. But then the procedural posture makes no sense--why (and how) can a plaintiff file a new lawsuit to enforce a judgment in a different action, even if in the same district and assigned (under a local related-case rule) to the same judge. It seems to me that the proper course have been to move to intervene or join as plaintiff in Wu and to move the court with jurisdiction over the injunction to enforce or modify. Filing a new lawsuit before a new judge is proper if asking for a new injunction protecting these plaintiffs as to these defendants.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 16, 2020 at 04:47 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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