Injunctions and Equitable Remedies.
By the fourteenth century, England possessed two distinct and somewhat rival court systems, known popularly as “law” and “equity” courts. Law courts were characterized by their development of the *common law, use of juries (see trial by jury), reliance on common-law pleading and the *writ system, and a rigid formality in their approach to resolving legal conflicts. Equity courts adopted a more flexible approach to cases and provided for broad remedies. A party suing in a law court was limited to a recovery of money as compensation for injury or damage. By contrast, one who sued in an equity court could choose from an array of coercive remedies, including injunctions to require or prohibit conduct, to require the specific performance of a contract, or to order the division of jointly owned property. These and other equitable remedies provided a flexibility lacking in the law courts.
America’s court system drew heavily on its English origins. One of the principal tasks of the framers of the Constitution was to define the “*judicial power” of the new federal courts. They stated simply that that power should “extend to all Cases in Law and Equity,” thus empowering federal courts to provide all the remedies developed in England’s equity courts. The development of equity in the states had been controversial throughout the colonial period, but after the Revolutionary period all states provided for equity courts, either as separate bodies or unified with law courts (see state courts).
In the federal courts, equitable remedies have been used aggressively during the past century to enforce federal law against the states. Previously, however, equity was not a significant element in judicial *federalism, for two reasons. First, the *Eleventh Amendment provided that federal courts could not take jurisdiction of “any suit in law or equity” against a suit brought by citizens of other states or nations. Second, there was little federal law to be enforced. Few of the Constitution’s provisions apply, on their face, to the states. Furthermore, in the landmark case of *Barron v. Baltimore (1833), Chief Justice John *Marshall held that the *Bill of Rights did not apply to the states. Thus, only a few state statutes were struck down by federal courts in the first century of the nation’s history.
Decline of State Immunity
This changed dramatically after ratification of the *Fourteenth Amendment. During the rapid economic expansion and industrial development after the *Civil War, federal courts frequently struck down state laws that tended to stifle economic growth, using the *Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was necessary, however, to overcome the states’ constitutional immunity from suit (see due process, substantive).
Ex parte *Young (1908) provided the Supreme Court an opportunity to revise the scope of state immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. In 1907, the Minnesota legislature had enacted a statute reducing certain in-state rail rates. Railroads contended that the statute deprived them of property in violation of the Due Process Clause, and they sought an injunction in a (p. 497) federal court to prevent the statute’s enforcement. One of the named respondents was Edward Young, the attorney general of Minnesota. The federal judge issued a temporary injunction, and Young was cited for contempt when he attempted to enforce the statute in a Minnesota court anyway. The Supreme Court concluded that the suit against Young was not barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Justice Rufus *Peckham for the 8-to-1 majority held that if a state officer attempts to enforce an unconstitutional statute he is “stripped of his official … character” and becomes personally subject to liability (p. 160). This is an utterly—and doubly—illogical holding. First, under the *state action doctrine enunciated in the *Civil Rights Cases (1883), federal power under the Fourteenth Amendment reaches only “acts done under State authority,” not private acts. Thus if the state attorney general was being enjoined in his private character, the injunction would not inhibit the exercise of state power. Second, it is impossible to know whether a statute is unconstitutional until after the case has been decided on its merits. The upshot of Young, therefore, was that a suit need only allege a statute’s unconstitutionality to override state immunity. Despite such inconsistencies, however, Young’s result remains today an essential weapon in the federal judicial armory for supervising the actions of the states.
Most constitutional attacks on state legislation after Young were aimed at economic reform laws. Such statutes were meant by lawmakers to improve the lot of industrial workers in a variety of ways: restricted hours, workplace improvements, minimum wages, elimination of child labor, and so on (see labor). Federal judges enjoined such statutes so often that political progressives demanded that federal equity powers be curtailed. Several statutes partially accomplished this, among them the Johnson Act of 1934, which prohibited federal injunctions against state regulation of utility rates, and the Tax Injunction Act of 1934, and federal legislation mandated that only three-judge panels be able to issue injunctions against state employees.
Broadening Use of Injunctions
These developments were soon overshadowed, however. In *Gitlow v. New York (1925), the Court stated for the first time that the *Bill of Rights applied to the states. Free *speech, the Court concluded, was a form of “liberty” that was protected from state encroachment under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Gitlow heralded a new era in constitutional law. Over the next thirty years, the Court selectively made provisions of the Bill of Rights enforceable against the states. With this expanded constitutional activism came a broadened use of injunctions (see incorporation doctrine).
Two examples illustrate the extent to which injunctions have been used as an instrument to enforce federally secured rights and to restrain state power. The first concerns the apportionment of legislative bodies. *Baker v. Carr (1962) involved a challenge to malapportionment of state legislatures. Baker expressly overruled precedents holding that malapportionment cases presented nonjusticiable *political questions and concluded that *equal protection of the laws was denied if state election districts were not fairly apportioned.
Two years later, in *Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Court considered the kinds of remedies that were available in apportionment cases. Reynolds stated that lower courts were to rely on the principles of equity to fashion a proper remedy. If an equal protection violation was found, federal judges were to proceed cautiously to provide the state an opportunity to correct the infirmity. If a proper apportionment was not completed in a timely way, federal courts could enjoin further elections under the state’s flawed apportionment plan. Beyond that, federal judges could develop their own temporary apportionment plan and actually implement it to remedy the violation (see reapportionment cases).
Another example of the use of federal injunctions may be found in the school desegregation cases. In the landmark case of *Brown v. Board of Education I (1954), the Court ruled that the maintenance of separate public schools for white and black students violated equal protection. In the follow-up to that case, Brown v. Board of Education II (1955), the Court made it clear that the objective of Brown was to eliminate dual school systems “with *all deliberate speed” (p. 301). To that end, the federal courts were specifically instructed to apply historic principles of equity and devise appropriate equitable remedies. Lower courts were first authorized to redraw school-district lines, and in some cases even ignore municipal, county, and other political boundaries. Courts were also authorized to order busing of students between districts to insure that desegregation was accomplished (see desegregation remedies).
These apportionment and desegregation cases are representative but not exhaustive. Federal injunctions are now an indispensable tool to uphold the constitutional rights of individuals. To accomplish this federal courts rely on the muscle and flexibility that characterize all of equity’s remedies.
In contrast with the wide-ranging use of federal injunctions in civil matters, federal judges are constrained to use equitable remedies sparingly in criminal cases, even when (p. 498) criminal prosecutions trench on federally secured rights. In *Younger v. Harris (1971), a defendant was indicted for violation of a California law that criminalized certain forms of political speech. The defendant sought an injunction from a federal court. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Justice Hugo *Black found that issuance of the injunction was improper. He held that the principles of equity required that federal courts not interfere in the state’s criminal case and that use of an injunction failed to respect state authority in the American federal system.
It has always been one of the basic principles of equity that an equitable remedy may be used to prevent irreparable injury. If a criminal case has been initiated in a state court, Younger stated, a defendant is free to litigate fully his constitutional claims there. An injunction should generally be unnecessary so long as the state has provided a substantively and procedurally fair opportunity to defend against criminal prosecution. Black also held that *judicial self-restraint was necessary so as not to intrude on the lawful activities of the states. A proper division of responsibility between state and federal authorities, which Black referred to as “Our Federalism,” has played an important role in America’s history and must be preserved. Younger thus forbade the use of injunctions against states in criminal cases except in unique circumstances (see abstention doctrine).
Younger runs counter to the trend in civil cases. Equitable remedies have historically been used aggressively against the states. Younger and its progeny hold that federal courts must refuse equitable relief against a state’s criminal justice system. The resultant tension is not destructive to the federal system or symptomatic of some flaw in the law. To the contrary, it is an inherent part of the American system of jurisprudence, representing the intersection of two conflicting objectives. Federal courts have a duty to enforce federal law, while at the same time respecting the independence of state court systems. Younger represents an attempt to strike a proper balance between these two interests.
See also judicial power and jurisdiction; lower federal courts.
Peter C. Hoffer, The Law’s Conscience: Equitable Constitutionalism in America (1990). William H. Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 7th ed. (1956). Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law, 2d ed. (1986).
James B. Stoneking