Government Can’t Simply Ignore Judicial Rulings It Doesn’t Like

By design, the federal judiciary is the weakest of the three branches of government. While the executive wields the sword, and Congress holds the purse strings, the courts have no temporal power.

To give effect to their decisions and orders, courts depend on popular legitimacy and the cooperation of the other branches. While that cooperation is normally forthcoming when needed to enforce judicial decisions against private citizens, when the subject of a court’s order is the government itself, there’s always a risk that it will be ignored or avoided.

Such is the case in Hornbeck Offshore Services v. Jewell, which began when the Interior Department (DOI) chose to put itself above the courts and above the law. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010, DOI issued a total ban on drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico. A district court judge held that this drilling moratorium was irrational and not supported by scientific research or other credible evidence. The judge issued an injunction prohibiting DOI from enforcing its ban.

Instead of obeying the injunction — or appealing it — DOI ignored it. The Secretary of the Interior told Congress that as far as he was concerned, the drilling ban was still in effect. DOI then issued a second ban on drilling that was identical to the first. The district judge held DOI in contempt of court, noting that “each step the government took following the Court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcase[d] its defiance” of the court’s authority.

On appeal, a panel of the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sided 2-1 with the DOI’s position that the contempt finding was improper because the issuance of a second (identical) drilling ban was not technically disallowed by the text of the injunction — which explicitly prohibited only enforcement of the initial ban. Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case because the appellate court’s ruling undermines the rule of law and the judiciary’s independent authority.

Under the Fifth Circuit’s rule, government agencies will be able to legally avoid court orders with bureaucratic trickery. If only the explicit text of an injunction — and not any of its spirit or clear purpose — binds the federal government, Congress or the executive could simply rename whatever statute or regulation has been declared unconstitutional and continue enforcing the substantively unconstitutional rule. Such an overly technical rule would force district court judges into the role of mind-readers, trying to predict how the government could weasel its way out of a ruling.

Without an effective contempt power to punish the violation of its orders, even the Supreme Court would be unable to enforce its important rulings, such as ending the District of Columbia’s unconstitutional ban on handguns, and striking down section 3 of DOMA. In both of those recent cases, the sort of semantic game-playing endorsed by the Fifth Circuit here would have resulted in hollow victories for liberty and an evisceration of the idea that in our constitutional republic, the government is bound by the same (if not stricter) rules as the rest of us.