Monday, October 01, 2012

On getting the lower court to do what the higher court decided

A traditional office of the writ of mandamus is to "'confine an inferior court to a lawful exercise of its prescribed jurisdiction or to compel it to exercise its authority when it is its duty to do so.' " Will v. United States, 389 U.S. 90, 95 (1967) (quoting Roche v. Evaporated Milk Ass'n, 319 U.S. 21, 26 (1943)). Mandamus to compel an inferior court to follow an appellate mandate is closely related to the doctrine of law of the case. Litigants who have proceeded to judgment in higher courts "should not be required to go through that entire process again to obtain execution of the judgment." General Atomic Co. v. Felter, 436 U.S. 493, 497 (1978). The Supreme Court long ago emphasized that when acting under an appellate court's mandate, an inferior court "is bound by the decree as the law of the case; and must carry it into execution, according to the mandate. That court cannot vary it, or examine it for any other purpose than execution." In re Sanford Fork & Tool Co., 160 U.S. 247, 255 (1895).

The same principles apply in Virginia state court. Mandamus is available to get lower courts to do what they should do. In re Commonwealth, 278 Va. 1, 22, 677 S.E.2d 236, 246 (2009) (mandamus directed to an inferior court “may be appropriately used and is often used to compel courts to act where they refuse to act and ought to act ...”); Page v. Clopton, 71 Va. (30 Gratt.) 415, 418 (1878) (mandamus "may be appropriately used and is often used to compel courts to act [when] they refuse to act and ought to act, but not to direct and control the judicial discretion to be exercised in the performance of the act to be done; to compel courts to hear and decide where they have jurisdiction, but not to pre-determine the decision to be made; to require them to proceed to judgment, but not to fix and prescribe the judgment to be rendered."). A ministerial act is “one which a person performs in a given state of facts and prescribed manner in obedience to the mandate of legal authority without regard to, or the exercise of, his own judgment upon the propriety of the act being done.” Dovel v. Bertram, 184 Va. 19, 22, 34 S.E.2d 269, 370 (1945). Under the “mandate rule,” a “trial court has no discretion to disregard [a] lawful mandate.” Rowe v. Rowe, 33 Va. App. 250, 257, 532 S.E.2d 908, 912 (2000), quoted in Powell v. Com., 267 Va. 107, 127-28, 590 S.E.2d 537, 549 (2004). The “mandate rule” is “merely a ‘specific application of the law of the case doctrine,’” and “in the absence of exceptional circumstances, it compels compliance on remand with the dictates of a superior court and forecloses relitigation of issues expressly or impliedly decided by the appellate court.” United States v. Bell, 5 F.3d 64, 66 (4th Cir. 1993), cited in West v. West, 59 Va. App. 225, 230-31, 717 S.E.2d 831, 833 (2011).

We first heard the term "mandamus" in junior high civics, in connection with the case of Marbury v. Madison. Marbury wanted the writ to issue against Madison, requiring him to come across with Marbury's commission. Curiously, the Virginia rules require a different style for petitions for writ of mandamus against a judge: "A petition for writ of mandamus or writ of prohibition against a judge shall not bear the name of the judge but shall be entitled, 'In re , Petitioner.'" Rule 5:7(b)(4), Va. S.Ct.

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