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We the People: One federal judge can issue a sweeping ruling nationwide (like last week’s one revoking mask mandates), but some question the authority

UPDATED: Fri., May 13, 2022

Mass transit riders wear masks as they commute in the financial district of lower Manhattan on April 19 in New York. On April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle voided the national travel mask mandate as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials.  (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)
Mass transit riders wear masks as they commute in the financial district of lower Manhattan on April 19 in New York. On April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle voided the national travel mask mandate as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)
By Nick Gibson For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is one part of the judicial branch?

Earlier this week, passengers on planes, trains and buses across the country had their journey interrupted by an announcement: the federal mask mandate was no longer in effect, courtesy of a district judge in Florida.

“I think people were shocked that a district judge could do that,” said Ann Murphy, professor of law at Gonzaga University. “I think it does mess with your sense of justice, because it’s like, ‘wait a minute, she’s located in Florida?’ But it’s happening more and more.”

Responsible for interpreting laws, the judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. The judicial branch is hierarchical, with 94 district courts, 13 appellate courts and the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court. Federal judges at each level serve for life, and are appointed by the President.

The nationwide injunction that halted the mask mandate came from Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who ruled Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its powers when it mandated face coverings on public transportation.

At 33, Mizelle is one of the youngest district judges to ever hold the position. She has faced criticism for her lack of experience since she was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2020, and even the American Bar Association said she was not qualified for the position during the Senate confirmation process.

“An injunction is just to stop something or to make somebody do something,” Murphy said. “They’re supposed to be an extraordinary remedy, but they’re kind of becoming more and more ordinary.”

Murphy said Mizelle’s mask mandate injunction is part of a larger trend of the politicization of the judicial branch. Prior to the 2000’s, national injunctions were rarely used. When they were issued, they were typically related to Civil Rights or environmental issues.

What we’ve seen more of is a person going to one district court judge and saying, ‘we want something to stop, or to start, and we’re requesting that it be nationwide,’ ” Murphy said. “Nowhere does it say a district court judge can issue a nationwide injunction. Even though they’re not allowed anywhere, under the Constitution or statute, they’re also not disallowed. So it’s basically become policy now because so many judges have done it.”

Injunctions became more common during the George W. Bush Administration, according to Murphy. Federal courts issued 12 national injunctions against the Bush White House, 20 against the Obama Administration and a whopping 55 injunctions during Trump’s presidency.

Although she acknowledges these rulings can be incredibly useful, Murphy believes they give the courts too much power. They help keep the Executive Branch in check and can address issues quickly, rather than waiting for the case to make its way through the court system, but Murphy said they are more commonly used to promote a political agenda, or attack a sitting president.

“This is where it gets problematic; they will direct it to a certain judge,” Murphy said. “If you want some Biden executive order struck down, you’re going to go to your favorite judge, or somebody who thinks like you. They call it forum shopping. So essentially, it wasn’t an accident that she ended up with this case.”

Murphy’s not alone in her concerns. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have voiced their disdain for the practice, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has attempted to pass legislation that would make the process of getting a national injunction more rigorous.

Legislation attempts so far have seen little progress, as both sides of the aisle use the injunctions in their favor. In order to stop the continued use of injunctions as political tools, Murphy said it likely will necessitate an intervention by the Supreme Court.

“I would think at this point in time, you’re probably in your best position to get rid of them, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future,” Murphy said. “There’s a big line of scholars who say we need to get rid of this, and there’s a big line of scholars who say we need this; it’s really an interesting area.”

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