Today (Tuesday, January 20) the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center. It’s a hugely important case that will shape the contours of federal spending statutes (here, Medicaid) and of federalism. While the dispute is between a state (Idaho) and Medicaid providers, there is more to learn from two amici: the administration, which gets the case admirably right; and the Chamber of Commerce, which gets it horridly wrong.
Traditionally, in order to obtain an injunction, a plaintiff must prove four elements: “A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that he is (1) likely to succeed on the merits, (2) that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, (3) that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an (4) injunction is in the public interest. If an injunction is issued, a defendant is ordered to do, or not to do something. Failure to comply with the order can result in contempt of court.
In a famous passage in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton wrote of the federal judiciary that it would have
no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.
If someone wrote these words today, he would be dismissed out of hand as totally ignorant of the practice of modern judges. Federal courts issue complex decrees that sometimes involve them in continuous oversight of government institutions such as schools and prisons. In connection with this task, they have ordered governments to impose taxes. They routinely use injunctions to enforce constitutional rulings and invoke their power to punish contempt of court in levying fines against recalcitrant officials.