CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Congressional Limitation of the Injunctive Power

Although the speculations of some publicists and some judicial dicta255 support the idea of an inherent power of the federal courts sitting in equity to issue injunctions independently of statutory limitations, neither the course taken by Congress nor the specific rulings of the Supreme Court support any such principle. Congress has repeatedly exercised its power to limit the use of the injunction in federal courts. The first limitation on the equity jurisdiction of the federal courts is to be found in Sec. 16 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided that no equity suit should be maintained where there was a full and adequate remedy at law. Although this[p.642]provision did no more than declare a pre–existing rule long applied in chancery courts,256 it did assert the power of Congress to regulate the equity powers of the federal courts. The Act of March 2, 1793,257 prohibited the issuance of any injunction by any court of the United States to stay proceedings in state courts except where such injunctions may be authorized by any law relating to bankruptcy proceedings. In subsequent statutes, Congress prohibited the issuance of injunctions in the federal courts to restrain the collection of taxes,258 provided for a three–judge court as a prerequisite to the issuance of injunctions to restrain the enforcement of state statutes for unconstitutionality,259 for enjoining federal statutes for unconstitutionality,260 and for enjoining orders of the Interstate Commerce Commission,261 limited the power to issue injunctions restraining rate orders of state public utility commissions,262 and the use of injunctions in labor disputes,263 and placed a very rigid restriction on the power to enjoin orders of the Administrator under the Emergency Price Control Act.264

Supplement: [P. 642, add to text following n.264:]

Perhaps pressing its powers further than prior legislation, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996.9 Essentially, the law imposes a series of restrictions on judicial remedies in prison–conditions cases. Thus, courts may not issue prospective relief that extends beyond that necessary to correct the violation of a federal right that they have found, that is narrowly drawn, is the least intrusive, and that does not give attention to the adverse impact on public safety. Preliminary injunctive relief is limited by the same standards. Consent decrees may not be approved unless they are subject to the same conditions, meaning that the court must conduct a trial and find violations, thus cutting off consent decrees. No prospective relief is to last longer than two years if any party or intervenor so moves. Finally, a previously issued decree that does not conform to the new standards imposed by the Act is subject to termination upon the motion of the defendant or an intervenor. After a short period (30 or 60 days, depending on whether there is “good cause” for a 30– day extension), such a motion operates as an automatic stay of the prior decree pending the court’s decision on the merits. The Court upheld the termination and automatic stay provisions in Miller v. French,10 rejecting the contention that the automatic stay provision offends separation of powers principles by legislative revision of a final judgment. Rather, Congress merely established new standards for the enforcement of prospective relief, and the automatic stay provision “helps to implement the change in the law.” 11

All of these restrictions have been sustained by the Supreme Court as constitutional and applied with varying degrees of thoroughness. The Court has made exceptions to the application of the prohibition against the stay of proceedings in state courts,265 but it has on the whole adhered to the statute. The exceptions raise no constitutional issues, and the tendency has been alternately to contract and to expand the scope of the exceptions.266

In Duplex Printing Press v. Deering,267 the Supreme Court placed a narrow construction upon the labor provisions of the Clayton Act and thereby contributed in part to the more extensive restriction by Congress on the use of injunctions in labor disputes in[p.643]the Norris–LaGuardia Act of 1932, which has not only been declared constitutional268 but has been applied liberally269 and in such a manner as to repudiate the notion of an inherent power to issue injunctions contrary to statutory provisions.

Injunctions Under the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942.— Lockerty v. Phillips270 justifies the same conclusion. Here the validity of the special appeals procedure of the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 was sustained. This act provided for a special Emergency Court of Appeals, which, subject to review by the Supreme Court, was given exclusive jurisdiction to determine the validity of regulations, orders, and price schedules issued by the Office of Price Administration. The Emergency Court and the Emergency Court alone was permitted to enjoin regulations or orders of OPA, and even it could enjoin such orders only after finding that the order was not in accordance with law or was arbitrary or capricious. The Emergency Court was expressly denied power to issue temporary restraining orders or interlocutory decrees, and in addition the effectiveness of any permanent injunction it might issue was to be postponed for thirty days. If review was sought in the Supreme Court by certiorari, effectiveness was to be postponed until final disposition. A unanimous Court, speaking through Chief Justice Stone, declared that there “is nothing in the Constitution which requires Congress to confer equity jurisdiction on any particular inferior federal court.” All federal courts, other than the Supreme Court, it was asserted, derive their jurisdiction solely from the exercise of the authority to ordain and establish inferior courts conferred on Congress by Article III, Sec. 1, of the Constitution. This power, which Congress is left free to exercise or not, was held to include the power “of investing them with jurisdiction either limited, concurrent, or exclusive, and of withholding jurisdiction from them in the exact degrees and character which to Congress may seem proper for the public good.”271 Although the Court avoided passing upon the constitutionality of the prohibition against interlocutory decrees, the language of the Court was otherwise broad enough to support it, as was the language of Yakus v. United[p.644]States,272 which sustained a different phase of the special procedure for appeals under the Emergency Price Control Act.

The Rule–Making Power and Powers Over Process

Among the incidental powers of courts is that of making all necessary rules governing their process and practice and for the orderly conduct of their business.273 However, this power too is derived from the statutes and cannot go beyond them. The landmark case is Wayman v. Southard,274 which sustained the validity of the Process Acts of 1789 and 1792 as a valid exercise of authority under the necessary and proper clause. Although Chief Justice Marshall regarded the rule–making power as essentially legislative in nature, he ruled that Congress could delegate to the courts the power to vary minor regulations in the outlines marked out by the statute. Fifty–seven years later, in Fink v. O’Neil,275 in which the United States sought to enforce by summary process the payment of a debt, the Supreme Court ruled that under the process acts the law of Wisconsin was the law of the United States, and hence the Government was required to bring a suit, obtain a judgment, and cause execution to issue. Justice Matthews for a unanimous Court declared that the courts have “no inherent authority to take any one of these steps, except as it may have been conferred by the legislative department; for they can exercise no jurisdiction, except as the law confers and limits it.”276 Conceding, in 1934, the limited competence of legislative bodies to establish a comprehensive system of court procedure, and acknowledging the inherent power of courts to regulate the conduct of their business, Congress authorized the Supreme Court to prescribe rules for the lower federal courts not inconsistent with the Constitution and statutes.277 Their[p.645]operation being restricted, in conformity with the proviso attached to the congressional authorization, to matters of pleading and practice, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure thus judicially promulgated neither affect the substantive rights of litigants278 nor alter the jurisdiction279 of federal courts and the venue of actions therein280 and, thus circumscribed, have been upheld as valid.


255 In United States v. Detroit Timber Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 339 (1906), Justice Brewer, speaking for the Court, approached a theory of inherent equity jurisdiction when he declared: “The principles of equity exist independently of and anterior to all Congressional legislation, and the statutes are either enunciations of those principles or limitations upon their application in particular cases.” It should be emphasized, however, that the Court made no suggestion that it could apply pre–existing principles of equity without jurisdiction over the subject matter. Indeed, the inference is to the contrary. In a dissenting opinion in which Justices McKenna and Van Devanter joined, in Paine Lumber Co. v. Neal, 244 U.S. 459, 475 (1917). Justice Pitney contended that Article III, Sec. 2, “had the effect of adopting equitable remedies in all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States where such remedies are appropriate.”
256 Boyce’s Executors v. Grundy, 3 Pet. (28 U.S.) 210 (1830).
257 1 Stat. 333 , 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2283 .
258 26 U.S.C. Sec. 7421 (a).
259 This provision was repealed in 1976, save for apportionment and districting suits and when otherwise required by an Act of Congress. P. L. 94–381, Sec. 1, 90 Stat. 1119 , and Sec. 3, id., 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2284 . Congress occasionally provides for such courts, as in the Voting Rights Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971 , 1973c.
260 Repealed by P. L. 94–381, Sec. 2, 90 Stat. 1119 . Congress occasionally provides for such courts now, in order to expedite Supreme Court consideration of constitutional challenges to critical federal laws. See Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 719–721 (1986) (3–judge court and direct appeal to Supreme Court in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985).
261 Repealed by P. L. 93–584, Sec. 7, 88 Stat. 1918 .
262 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1342 .
263 29 U.S.C. §§ 52 , 101–110.
264 56 Stat. 31, 204 (1942).
265 Freeman v. Howe, 24 How. (65 U.S.) 450 (1861); Gaines v. Fuentes, 92 U.S. 10 (1876); Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908).
266 Infra, pp.801–802.
267 254 U.S. 443 (1921).
268 Lauf v. E. G. Shinner & Co., 303 U.S. 323 (1938); New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 303 U.S. 552 (1938).
269 Ibid.; see also Drivers’ Union v. Valley Co., 311 U.S. 91. 100–103 (1940), and compare Sinclair Refining Co. v. Atkinson, 370 U.S. 195 (1962), with Boys Markets v. Retail Clerks Union, 398 U.S. 235 (1970).
270 319 U.S. 182 (1943).
271 Id., 187 (quoting Cary v. Curtis, 3 How. (44 U.S.) 236, 245 (1845)). See South Carolina v. Katzenback, 383 U.S. 301, 331–332 (1966), upholding a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made the district court for the District of Columbia the only avenue of relief for States seeking to remove the coverage of the Act.
272 321 U.S. 414 (1944). But compare Adamo Wrecking Co. v. United States, 434 U.S. 275 (1978) (construing statute in way to avoid the constitutional issue raised in Yakus). In United States v. Mendoza– Lopez, 481 U.S. 828 (1987), the Court held that, when judicial review of a deportation order had been precluded, due process required that the alien be allowed to make a collateral challenge to the use of that proceeding as an element of a subsequent criminal proceeding.
273 Washington–Southern Co. v. Baltimore Co., 263 U.S. 629 (1924).
274 10 Wheat. (23 U.S.) 1 (1825).
275 106 U.S. 272, 280 (1882).
276 See Miner v. Atlass, 363 U.S. 641 (1960), holding that a federal district court, sitting in admiralty, has no inherent power, independent of any statute or the Supreme Court’s Admiralty Rules, to order the taking of deposition for the purpose of discovery. See also Harris v. Nelson. 394 U.S. 286 (1969), in which the Court found statutory authority in the “All Writs Statute” for a habeas corpus court to propound interrogatories.
277 In the Act of June 19, 1934, 48 Stat. 1064 , and contained in 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2072 , Congress, in authorizing promulgation of rules of civil procedure, reserved the power to examine and override or amend rules proposed pursuant to the act which it found to be contrary to its legislative policy. See Sibbach v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14–16 (1941). Congress also has authorized promulgation of rules of criminal procedure, habeas, evidence, admiralty, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure. Congress in the 1970s disagreed with the direction of proposed rules of evidence and of habeas practice, and, first postponing their effectiveness, enacted revised rules. P.L. 93–505, 88 Stat. 1926 (1974); P.L. 94–426, 90 Stat. 1334 (1976).
278 However, the abolition of old rights and the creation of new ones in the course of litigation conducted in conformance with these judicially prescribed federal rules has been sustained as against the contention of a violation of substantive rights. Sibbach v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14 (1941).
279 Cf. United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 589–590 (1941).
280 Mississippi Pub. Corp. v. Murphree, 326 U.S. 438 (1946).

Supplement Footnotes

9 The statute was part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act signed by the President on April 26, 1996. Pub. L. 104–134, Sec. Sec. 801–10, 110 Stat. 1321–66– 77, amending 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3626.
10 120 S. Ct. 2246 (2000).
11 120 S. Ct. at 2259.
Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next