A (writ of) mandamus is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion. See e.g. Cheney v. United States Dist. Court For D.C. (2004).According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy, which should only be used in exceptional circumstances of peculiar emergency or public importance."
Mandamus at the Federal Level
In federal courts, these orders most frequently appear when a party to a suit wants to appeal a judge's decision but is blocked by rules against interlocutory appeals. Instead of appealing directly, the party simply sues the judge, seeking a mandamus compelling the judge to correct their earlier mistake. Generally, this type of indirect appeal is only available if the party has no alternative means of seeking review.
The All Writs Act (28 U.S. Code § 1651) gave the "Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress" the authority to issue writs of mandamus "in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."
Further, 28 U.S. Code § 1361 gave federal district courts "original jurisdiction of any action in the nature of mandamus to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff."
Mandamus at the State Level
For comity purposes, state courts cannot direct a federal officer through a mandamus and federal courts likewise cannot issue a mandamus to a state officer. Rules on mandamus and similar orders vary by jurisdiction.
In California, there are 2 types of mandamus:
- Ordinary Mandate
- An ordinary mandate is used by a court to compel agencies to perform ministerial acts. Courts may also use it to compel the admission of a person to the use and enjoyment of a right or office to which the person is entitled, and from which the person is unlawfully precluded. An example of a party attempting this, albeit unsuccessfully, can be observed in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 when William Marbury attempted to have the Supreme Court issue a writ of mandamus to force Thomas Jefferson to install Marbury as a justice of the peace
- A court may issue a writ of ordinary mandate against a corporation in the same circumstances.
- Ordinary mandates in California are governed by Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1084
- Administrative Mandate
- In Florida, State ex rel. Evans v. Chappel, 308 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1975) determined that the party asking for a writ of mandamus must demonstrate a clear legal right to commission of the particular duty in question.
- In addition to issuing a writ of mandamus to a government official, a court may also issue a writ of mandamus to a lower court, as demonstrated in State ex rel. Gerstein v. Schwartz, 357 So. 2d 167 (Fla. 1978).
- In New York, a writ of mandamus may be issued for when an administrative agency, public body, or officer fails to perform a duty enjoined upon them by New York Civil Practice Laws & Rules, Section 7803.
[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]