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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Universality in Tandon v. Newsom

Christopher Sprigman started a Twitter thread contemplating what happens if California disregards or circumvents the order in Tandon v. Newsom. A different thread derides the suggestion as "stupid." I do not believe California will attempt this, so the issue is academic. But we can illustrate how litigation operates by parsing this specific case.

We need to break down what state officials might attempt to do and against whom.

Tandon was a lawsuit by ten plaintiffs, individually. Newsom and other California officials are enjoined from enforcing COVID restrictions against these ten individuals and the religious groups they head. Any attempt to enforce against them would constitute disregard for a court order. It could be punishable by contempt, sanctionable by fines and, in the extreme, jail. And yes, Biden would be obligated to send in US Marshals, if not the 101st Airborne, to enforce the court's order against state officials as to these ten plaintiffs.

No court order prohibits Newsom and other California officials from attempting to enforce the regulations against anyone other than those ten individuals. State officials therefore would not be in contempt of any court order in attempting to do so. Nor would they be "disobeying" the Supreme Court, because the Supreme Court did not order them to refrain from doing anything as to anyone other than those ten plaintiffs. And Biden and the US Marshals would play no role, because there is no court order to enforce.

What would happen if Newsom or other state officials attempted or threatened to attempt this?

    • The new targets would sue in federal court, asking for an injunction to protect them.* They should get it, although a lot depends on how much precedential force these per curiam shadow-docket "decisions" or "orders," even with five justices behind them, carry. They may carry force less as precedent than as a looking threat--lower courts are on notice that failure to enjoin will be summarily reversed by SCOTUS, which now sees it as its job to superintend litigation without awaiting finality or full briefing. Either way, it seems likely that the district court would issue that injunction prohibiting enforcement against these new targets. The new targets also could obtain attorney's fees as prevailing parties, which might be the strongest drag on pursuing this strategy. This new judgment and injunction protects these individuals against enforcement by these state officials. Were officials to continue enforcement efforts as to these plaintiffs, they would be disobeying a court order; subject to contempt, fines, or other sanctions; and subject to action by US Marshals.

[*] Alternatively, they might join as plaintiffs in the current action and ask the court to expand the injunction. There are some close Rule 20 joinder issues there.

    • The new targets also might ask for damages from the attempt or threat to enforce, even if only nominal. The question then is whether the defendants would lose qualified immunity for their actions. Is it now clearly established that COVID regulations treating religious practice less favorably than any other activity (comparable or not) violates the First Amendment? Again, it depends on how courts treat these orders as precedent that clearly establishe a right.

Would Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, both on record as rejecting application of injunctions beyond the names plaintiffs to that case, disagree with any of this?

This is the first time we have seen this idea from the left; previous talk of "resistance" efforts came from the right, in response to Brown and Obergefell. And it does no good to distinguish this case as involving a "rule that religious people get to ignore the law." Any framing--here, in Brown, or in Obergefell--reduces to disagreement with the substance of a decision and an attempt to convert disagreement into a suggestion of illegitimacy.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 11, 2021 at 05:12 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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