Court Uses Declaratory Judgment, Avoids Injunction to Get Trump to Unblock Twitter Followers: Will It Work?

I plan to do more blogging about Remedies, especially given my news about coming on the Laycock casebook. And here’s an especially nice illustration of an important Remedies issue in the news.

Yesterday  a federal court held that President Trump’s decision to block users on Twitter violates the First Amendment. This is big news, and Eugene Volokh gives his First Amendment take here.

But I wanted to point out an important Remedies issue. Rather than order Trump to comply with an injunction (which is immediately punishable by the power of contempt), the court instead used a declaratory judgment, simply declaring that Trump is violating the law. “Finally, we consider what form of relief should be awarded, as plaintiffs seek both declaratory relief and injunctive relief. While we reject defendants’ categorical assertion that injunctive relief cannot ever be awarded against the President, we nonetheless conclude that it is unnecessary to enter that legal thicket at this time. A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the President — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.”

There’s a more extensive discussion near the end of the opinion. After noting a dispute over whether a court can issue an injunction against the President (there’s no doubt it could, the court says), it adds:

Accordingly, though we conclude that injunctive relief may be awarded in this case — at minimum, against Scavino — we decline to do so at this time because declaratory relief is likely to achieve the same purpose. The Supreme Court has directed that we should “assume it is substantially likely that the President and other executive . . . officials would abide by an authoritative interpretation of [a] . . . constitutional provision,” Franklin, 505 U.S. at 803 (plurality opinion); see Utah v. Evans, 536 U.S. at 464 (citing Franklin, 505 U.S. at 803 (plurality opinion)); see also Allco Fin. Ltd. v. Klee, 861 F.3d 82, 96 (2d Cir. 2017); Made in the USA, 242 F.3d at 1310; Swan, 100 F.3d at 980; L.A. Cty. Bar Ass’n v. Eu, 979 F.2d 697, 701 (9th Cir. 1992) (“Were this court to issue the requested declaration, we must assume that it is substantially likely that [government officials] . . . would abide by our authoritative determination.”), and there is simply no reason to depart from this assumption at this time. Declaratory judgment is appropriate under the factors that the Second Circuit directs us to consider, see Dow Jones & Co. v. Harrods Ltd., 346 F.3d 357, 359-60 (2d Cir. 2003), and a declaration will therefore issue: the blocking of the individual plaintiffs from the @realDonaldTrump account because of their expressed political views violates the First Amendment. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), and we have held that the President’s blocking of the individual plaintiffs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.

The court is right that ordinarily a declaratory judgment is as good as an injunction. It is implicitly coercive, and can be followed up by an injunction if necessary (note the “at this time” language in the court opinion). It is a “myth” that declaratory judgments are milder, as Sam Bray argues. And it made sense here for the court to piggy-back off that myth.

And yet, Donald Trump is a known norm breaker who has attacked the courts when they have decided against. It will be interesting to watch if the implicitly coercive declaratory judgment is enough to get Donald Trump to comply. Stephen Colbert even joked about it on The Late Show last night.

If Trump doesn’t comply, then we get into dicier territory, where an angrier judge can order Trump to comply and we will see what happens (as the President likes to say). Of course, this could all be mooted if the Second Circuit reverses on the merits on appeal.

But I’m watching this Remedies issue quite closely.

 

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