Nationwide Injunctions: City of Chicago v. Sessions and Class-wide Relief in Non-class Action Cases

By Matthew Erickson

Jeff Sessions
Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

On September 17, 2017, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a preliminary injunction against the imposition of conditions the Trump administration placed on receipt of federal funds under a program known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (the “Byrne JAG grant”). The case, City of Chicago v. Sessions, was the second major challenge to the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” after the Northern District of California blocked a similar effort.

Immigration was an important issue in Trump’s presidential campaign, and after his election the Department of Justice took the official position that sanctuary cities “make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes.” The City of Chicago argued that its “Welcoming Ordinance,” which forbids Chicago employees from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement unless certain conditions are met, is essential to fostering cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement. Much like Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, the sanctuary cities policy has been mired in legal controversy.

In finding for the City of Chicago, the district court enjoined the Department of Justice from enforcing the policy anywhere in the nation rather than just enjoining the Department via the named plaintiffs. This remedy, referred to as a “nationwide injunction,” has come under scrutiny in recent years, with Attorney General Sessions referring to judges who issue nationwide injunctions as “super-legislators.”

Recent scholarship has pointed out the harms of nationwide injunctions issued outside of class-action lawsuits, including forum shopping, the possibility of conflicting injunctions, and the fact that nationwide injunctions effectively prevent other circuits from weighing in on the issue, potentially forcing the Supreme Court to grant certiorari sooner than it would otherwise. Others argue, however, that there are also advantages to nationwide injunctions. They may preserve judicial resources and increase uniformity by deciding a case for the whole nation at once, and may afford more complete relief to the plaintiffs.

What makes the recent decision impressive is that, unlike many decisions preceding it, the district court offered an analysis of the costs and benefits of issuing a nationwide injunction, and acknowledged the possible harms accompanying such a remedy. The district court emphasized that nationwide injunctions are “an extraordinary remedy that should be limited by the nature of the constitutional violation” (though it should be noted that, unlike the court in California, this court did not find a constitutional violation, instead finding for the City of Chicago on statutory interpretation grounds). However, the court ultimately issued a nationwide injunction for three reasons. First, the judge found no evidence of forum shopping. Second, judicial economy counseled against requiring multiple suits to decide the issue. The third reason, which received the most lengthy treatment, was that the “rule of law” would be ill served by allowing an illegal policy to be enforced.

I will be exploring the issues surrounding the use of nationwide injunctions in an upcoming student Note, where I will argue that the path forward is not to move away from equitable balancing, but rather to evaluate the factors counseling for and against a nationwide injunction more carefully than most courts have done thus far. Regardless of whether this court arrived at the right answer in issuing a nationwide injunction, the mere fact that it gave attention to the problems nationwide injunctions pose and attempted to weigh factors counseling for and against an injunction is laudable. Hopefully, future courts will follow suit, continuing this important conversation.