Injunctions and equitable remedies

Court orders commanding or preventing actions and nonmonetary legal relief, obtained when monetary damages do not properly redress the injury.

To understand injunctions and equitable remedies, it is necessary to examine their historical origins in British law. In Britain, two court systems, law courts and equity courts, have existed side by side for some six hundred years. The United States’ legal system, modeled after Britain’s, included both kinds of courts.

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution made provision for federal courts, they wrote in Article III, section 2, “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made under their Authority.” They went on to specify numerous specific areas that fell under the jurisdiction of this article.

Law Courts and Equity Courts

Britain’s law courts followed the common law and used juries to reach legal decisions. They were formal and relatively inflexible in their means of settling legal conflicts. People bringing actions in them could receive only monetary settlements to redress their injuries. The equity courts, however, were considerably more flexible. People who sued in them had available to them a choice of remedies ranging from requiring that contracts be honored to the equitable division of jointly owned property. Equity courts were authorized to issue injunctions that required or proscribed various forms of comportment.

During America’s colonial period, the establishment of equity courts was a controversial issue. After the Revolutionary War, however, every state had federal equity courts either as separate entities or combined with law courts. The equity courts, however, were not used extensively in the early days of the republic, largely because the new nation had enacted few federal laws that had to be enforced.

After the passage of the Eleventh Amendment in 1795, federal courts were prevented from taking jurisdiction in “any suit in law or equity” against suits lodged by citizens of other states or foreign countries. In 1833 in his opinion in Barron v. Baltimore, Justice John Marshall declared that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states, a pronouncement that was honored until it was struck down in Gitlow v. New York[case]Gitlow v. New York[Gitlow v. New York] (1925), when the Court for the first time ruled that, contrary to what Marshall contended, the Bill of Rights was applicable to the individual states.Incorporation doctrine

The pace of federal oversight accelerated after the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, a time of industrial expansion following the Civil War. In the ninety-two years between Barron and Gitlow, the notion that the Bill of Rights was not applicable to the states caused the federal courts to move slowly and cautiously.

Effects of the Fourteenth Amendment

With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal courts began to invalidate state laws that restrained the growth of industry and stunted economic progress. To do this, they had to overcome the immunity from lawsuits that the Eleventh Amendment granted to the states.

In 1907 the Minnesota legislature passed legislation that reduced intrastate rail rates. The railroads balked, claiming under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that they were being unfairly deprived of their rightful property. They sought a federal court injunction to reverse the legislature’s action. After a federal judge issued a temporary injunction, the state’s attorney general, Edward Young, was held in contempt for ignoring it.

In Ex parte Young[case]Young, Ex parte[Young, Ex parte] (1908), the Court ruled that the Eleventh AmendmentEleventh Amendment did not prevent Young from being sued. As a state official, he had, under the Eleventh Amendment, claimed immunity from federal lawsuits. Justice Rufus W. Peckham stated in his opinion that if a state official takes measures to enforce a statute that is unconstitutional, that official can no longer be treated as a state officer but is “stripped of his official . . . character.” Such an official, therefore, becomes personally subject to liability.

The validity of the Court’s 8-1 decision in Ex parte Young was challenged, partly because the federal power bestowed by the Fourteenth Amendment pertains only to acts done under state authority rather than to private acts. Also, it has been pointed out that it is not possible to know whether a statute is unconstitutional until a case involving it has been decided on its merits. In Young, the state law was considered unconstitutional but had not yet been found so in federal court.

Most constitutional challenges to state law after Young involved cases with economic consequences. These statutes focused on such matters as limiting working hours, controlling child labor, establishing minimum wages, enforcing workplace safety, and related issues. Federal judges supported such statutes so vigorously that calls for the curtailment of federal equity powers were common.

Limiting Federal Equity Powers

There was sufficient outcry from the states against the federal judiciary that in 1934, two acts were passed to limit severely its role in equity procedures. The Johnson Act of 1934 denied the issuance of federal injunctions against state regulation in utility rate cases. This act in effect returned to the states the power to regulate the rates of one of their most important industries.

The Tax Injunction Act of 1934 also reduced much federal power. It decreed that federal injunctions could be ordered and issued against state employees only by three-judge panels rather than by individual judges.

<i>Gitlow</i> and Its Aftermath

One of the Court’s most influential decisions was rendered in Gitlow v. New York[case]Gitlow v. New York[Gitlow v. New York]. In this 1925 case, the Court, which since 1833 had denied that the Bill of Rights applied to the states, declared that the First Amendment right of free speech was applicable to the states. This decision gave citizens whose civil liberties had been violated access to federal remedies against states that deprived them of their constitutional rights.

Benjamin Gitlow belonged to a far-left branch of the Socialist Party. He was arrested during the Red Scare of 1920 for writing and distributing Left-Wing Manifesto, a pamphlet that advocated the establishment of a socialist state through labor unrest and class action. The charges against him included slurs on his personality and disposition. The New York court that tried his case, in which he was defended by Clarence Darrow, found him guilty of subversive behavior, ruling that he and his abstract ideas presented a potential danger to society.

This indefensible verdict was enough to cause the Court to reconsider whether the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and a free press should be applied to the states, contrary to Justice Marshall’s 1833 opinion. Gitlow’s attorney in his Court hearing, Walter H. Pollak, held that freedom of expression is a fundamental liberty that should not be limited by states.

The Court upheld Gitlow’s right to freedom of expression by a vote of seven to two. After Gitlow, the Court adjudicated other cases in which the Bill of Rights, through the issuance of injunctions, has been applied to the states. Gitlow, however, had implications that extended beyond the area of freedom of expression.

In Baker v. Carr[case]Baker v. Carr[Baker v. Carr] (1962), the Court dealt with the question of apportionment of legislative bodies. In this case, its finding sidestepped the issue of whether this case presented an unjusticiable political question, which might have precluded it from consideration by the Court, by declaring that citizens had been deprived of the equal protection promised by the equal protection clause in states where malapportionment existed.

Two years later, in Reynolds v. Sims[case]Reynolds v. Sims[Reynolds v. Sims] (1964), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote an opinion directing the lower courts to follow the principles of equity in finding a proper remedy to malapportionment. If equal protection had been denied through malapportionment, federal judges were admonished to allow the states time to seek a remedy to the situation. If, however, the states were unreasonably slow in solving the problem, the federal courts had the power to prohibit further elections under the flawed system. Federal judges were encouraged to draw up and implement their own temporary reapportionment plans.


Perhaps the most controversial decisions of the 1950’s were Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954) and Brown v. Board of Education II[case]Brown II[Brown II] (1955). In its first ruling, the Court found that segregation of black and white students in separate but equal schools was a violation of the equal protection clause. In a diverse society, it was argued, separate schools cannot be equal schools because they deprive students of interaction with whole segments of society.

In its second decision a year later, the Court left no doubt that it was the intention of the Brown decision that segregated school systems were to be eliminated “with all deliberate speed.” Federal courts were instructed to follow the principles of equity law and to offer appropriate remedies to those affected by school segregation. Among the equitable remedies proposed were the redrawing of the lines of school districts, which in some instances required overlooking traditional town and county boundaries. Federal judges were also authorized to order the busing of students to assure the integration of schools. This was one of the more controversial remedies proffered.

Criminal Versus Civil Law

Federal injunctions are frequently used in civil cases. Their use in criminal cases, however, has been restricted. In one test case, Younger v. Harris[case]Younger v. Harris[Younger v. Harris] (1971), the defendant had been convicted in a state court for violation of California’s criminal syndicalism act, which prohibited some forms of political speech. The Court had found unconstitutional an identical statute in Brandenburg v. Ohio[case]Brandenburg v. Ohio[Brandenburg v. Ohio] (1969) two years earlier, so the defendant sought an injunction in federal court to forbid his prosecution under a law the Court had already found unconstitutional. In this case, however, the Court did not consider the decision in Brandenburg but rather vacated the injunction that the federal court had granted.

The argument for doing so was based on technical grounds. Federal courts were permitted to intervene in state court proceedings only if certain specific conditions existed, which, in this case, they did not. The Court’s decision was based on its perceived need to honor the principle of comity. In an 8-1 decision, the Court denied the defendant’s appeal, although his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights seemingly had been abridged. The Court, however, did not address the First and Fourteenth Amendment concerns, instead denying the appeal on procedural grounds, something that happens more frequently in criminal cases than in civil cases. In the final analysis, the Court usually respects the fact that federal courts exist to enforce federal laws, whereas state courts exist to enforce state laws. If the latter come into direct conflict with the former, federal law will prevail, but such a conflict did not exist in Younger.

Further Reading

  • The most detailed and lucid source on injunctions and equitable remedies is Laurence H. Tribe’s American Constitutional Law (2d ed., Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1991), which offers a comprehensive view of the subject. The Law of Injunctions (Boston: Little, 1994), by Arthur D. Wolf and Bruce K. Miller, focuses on the use of injunctions in both civil and criminal cases. Edward D. Re and Stanton D. Krauss discuss fully equity law and equitable remedies in Remedies, Cases, and Materials (Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1991). A. K. Kludze provides an international perspective on matters of equity in Modern Principles of Equity (Hawthorne, N.J.: Mouton, 1988). Peter C. Hoffer’s The Law’s Conscience: Equitable Constitutionalism in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990) is well written, thorough, and accurate. It is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the area.

Baker v. Carr

Barron v. Baltimore

Bill of Rights

Brown v. Maryland

Equal protection clause

First Amendment

Gitlow v. New York

Incorporation doctrine

Pollak, Walter H.

Young, Ex parte

Younger v. Harris