Judge's View: Trump tweet created confusion of injunctions
Last month, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction stopping enforcement of an executive order issued by the president. The president, in a Twitter post shortly afterwards, was very critical of the "so-called" judge, and that characterization drew a lot of attention. Equally important but not discussed nearly as much, however, was another part of the tweet that said the judge's decision "essentially takes law-enforcement [sic] away from our country[.]" That comment appears to misinterpret the nature of an injunction.
In plain English, an injunction is a court order requiring someone to do or not to do a particular act. The purpose of a temporary injunction is to protect the rights of parties and preserve the status quo while the court case is pending. The key determination is whether "irreparable harm" will result to a party before the court can decide the merits of the issue. State and federal judges have both the power to grant an injunction and considerable discretion in deciding whether one is appropriate. It is an essential tool of the court system to make sure the litigation process is not just fair, but also effective. Winning on the legal issue months later does very little good if the damage will already be done in the meantime.
Granting an injunction does not guarantee one side or the other will eventually win the case. Whether or not one side is likely to prevail is just one factor for the court to consider. Other factors include the background and relationship between the parties, the harm to be suffered by either or both parties if an injunction is granted or not granted, any public policy considerations, and the administrative burden on the courts to supervise or enforce the temporary order. The court must weigh all of those factors and then decide whether to issue the injunction.
Here is one example: John Smith is employed as a salesman, and has a non-compete clause in his contract. He quits his job and immediately starts working for a competitor, planning to bring his former customers with him. His former employer requests an injunction to prevent Smith from violating his non-compete clause, arguing that the company would suffer irreparable harm if Smith is allowed to keep working for the competitor while the case is pending, because the long-term harm from loss of those customers would be impossible to undo. In other words, even if the company eventually wins a judgment for lost sales, that remedy would not undo the immediate harm.
When a new law is passed, sometimes a constitutional challenge to that law is combined with a request for an injunction to keep the law from being enforced. The purpose of this tactic is to make sure a person's constitutional rights are not violated before they have their day in court. This does take some power away from law enforcement, although only temporarily. It is the job of the courts to interpret the Constitution, and hitting the pause button on a new law or rule can be a necessary step to protect the rights of everyone involved.
Judge Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife Barbara now live in Hermantown with their four children.