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Scholars of administrative law focus overwhelmingly on lawsuits to review federal government action while assuming that, if plaintiffs win such lawsuits, the government will do what the courts say. But in fact, the federal government's compliance with court orders is imperfect and fraught, especially with orders compelling the government to act affirmatively. Through an examination of thousands of opinions (especially of district courts), docket sheets, briefs, and other filings, plus archival research and interviews, this Article provides the first general assessment of how federal courts handle the federal government's disobedience. The Article makes four conclusions. First, the federal judiciary is willing to issue contempt findings against agencies and officials. Second, while several federal judges believe they can (and have tried to) attach sanctions (fines and imprisonment) to these findings, the higher courts have exhibited a virtually complete unwillingness to allow sanctions, at times swooping down at the eleventh hour to rescue an agency from incurring a budget-straining fine or its top official from being thrown in jail. Third, the higher courts, even as they unfailingly thwart sanctions in all but a few minor instances, have bent over backward to avoid making pronouncements that sanctions are categorically unavailable, deliberately keeping the sanctions issue in a state of low salience and at least nominal legal uncertainty. Fourth, even though contempt findings are practically devoid of sanctions, they have a shaming effect that gives them substantial if imperfect deterrent power.
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