Duty to Obey Court Orders

Relatively unyielding is the rule that a party must do what is required of him by the court order that resolves his case. (For example, an injunction might require a defendant never to take specified action.) In this, the rule differs from the much more complex and malleable rules (stare decisis and collateral estoppel) concerning the consequences for later cases of an earlier court decision’s fact finding and legal reasoning.

Compliance with court orders is essential to our conception of the ‘‘rule of law.’’ President Nixon’s grudging acquiescence to the Watergate subpoenas makes clear that the rule of compliance binds the government as well as ordinary persons. Basic order depends on government and citizens alike abiding by official adjudications until they are dislodged by a higher court. Consequently, as the Supreme Court made clear in United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 293-94 (1947), courts usually require compliance even with erroneous court orders until they are overturned on appeal. Even if the order is invalidated, the appellate court will regard it, in effect, as valid for the period before it was overturned.

In Walker v. Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307, 318-20 (1967), the Supreme Court suggests in dicta that an erroneous court order enjoining constitutionally protected activity might be disobeyed if it is determined on appeal that (1) the order was legally wrong; (2) prompt attempts had been made to appeal; and (3) rights would have been lost by obeying the order pending relief on appeal. For example, if someone is ordered not to speak concerning politics until after the next election and no appeal is available very soon, then it is a reasonable gamble that he may disobey the order until the appeal can be decided. However, he takes the risk, among others, that the appellate courts will find (1) that the original order complied with the constitution or (2) that he had avenues of meaningfully swifter review. If either is found and he has disobeyed the order, then he is likely to be in contempt. It is also possible that an order resulting from certain court proceedings regarded as shams or as completely lawless need not be followed.

Action against those not complying with a court order takes a variety of forms including (1) contempt proceedings, resulting in fines or terms of confinement or (2) executive seizure of property necessary to satisfy the order. A court order also exerts great force outside the issuing court. The federal constitutional text, federal statutes, and related federal common law require that state and federal courts honor and enforce each other’s judgments.

GORDON G. YOUNG

References and Further Reading

  • Palmer, J., Note: Collateral Bar and Contempt: Challenging a Court Order After Disobeying It, Cornell L. Rev. 88 (2002): 215.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 293-94 (1947)
  • Walker v. Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307, 318-20 (1967)

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