The Endgame of Administrative Law: Governmental Disobedience and the Judicial Contempt Power

120 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2017 Last revised: 12 Jan 2018

Date Written: January 12, 2018


Scholars of administrative law focus overwhelmingly on lawsuits to review federal government action while assuming that, if plaintiffs win such lawsuits, the government will do what the courts say. But in fact, the federal government’s compliance with court orders is imperfect and fraught, especially with orders compelling the government to act affirmatively. Through an examination of thousands of opinions (especially of district courts), docket sheets, briefs, and other filings, plus archival research and interviews, this Article provides the first general assessment of how federal courts handle the federal government’s disobedience. The Article makes four conclusions. First, the federal judiciary is willing to issue contempt findings against agencies and officials. Second, while several federal judges believe they can (and have tried to) attach sanctions (fines and imprisonment) to these findings, the higher courts have exhibited a virtually complete unwillingness to allow sanctions, at times swooping down at the eleventh hour to rescue an agency from incurring a budget-straining fine or its top official from being thrown in jail. Third, the higher courts, even as they unfailingly thwart sanctions in all but a few minor instances, have bent over backward to avoid making pronouncements that sanctions are categorically unavailable, deliberately keeping the sanctions issue in a state of low salience and at least nominal legal uncertainty. Fourth, even though contempt findings are practically devoid of sanctions, they have a shaming effect that gives them substantial if imperfect deterrent power.

Keywords: contempt, administrative law, remedies, sovereign immunity, separation of powers, Department of Justice, judicial restraint, shaming, injunctions, appropriations

JEL Classification: K41

Suggested Citation

Parrillo, Nicholas R., The Endgame of Administrative Law: Governmental Disobedience and the Judicial Contempt Power (January 12, 2018). Harvard Law Review, Volume 131, Pages 685-794 (2018), Available at SSRN: or

Nicholas R. Parrillo (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

127 Wall St.
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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