The Supreme Court and the New Equity
62 Pages Posted: 15 May 2014 Last revised: 1 Oct 2015
Date Written: April 27, 2015
The line between law and equity has largely faded away. Even in remedies, where the line persists, the conventional scholarly wisdom favors erasing it. Yet something surprising has happened. In a series of cases over the last decade and a half, the U.S. Supreme Court has acted directly contrary to this conventional wisdom. These cases range across many areas of substantive law — from commercial contracts and ERISA to habeas and immigration, from patents and copyright to environmental law and national security. Throughout these disparate areas, the Court has consistently reinforced the line between legal and equitable remedies, and it has treated equitable remedies as having distinctive powers and limitations.
This Article describes and begins to evaluate the Court’s new equity cases. Faced with many federal statutes authorizing equitable relief, the Court has looked to history and tradition to determine what counts as an equitable remedy and also to determine the circumstances in which equitable relief should be given. There have been some blunders, and the Court has taken no account of the complexity of equity’s history. On the whole, however, the Court’s new equity cases represent a reasonable response to an enduring challenge: how to make sense of equitable doctrines in a world without equitable courts. This conclusion will prove controversial for scholars in remedies and in various substantive fields, but even those who disagree will need to grapple with the new equity cases, for they may shape the law of remedies for decades to come.
Keywords: remedies, equity, equitable, injunctions, eBay, Petrella, ERISA, restitution
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