Debs and the Federal Equity Jurisdiction

43 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2021 Last revised: 13 Jan 2023

See all articles by Aditya Bamzai

Aditya Bamzai

University of Virginia School of Law

Samuel L. Bray

Notre Dame Law School

Date Written: May 2, 2022

Abstract

The United States can sue for equitable relief without statutory authorization. The leading case on this question is In re Debs, and how to understand that case is of both historical and contemporary importance. Debs was a monumental opinion that prompted responses in the political platforms of major parties, presidential addresses, and enormous academic commentary. In the early twentieth century, Congress enacted several pieces of labor legislation that reduced Debs’s importance in the specific context of strikes. But in other contexts, the question whether the United States can bring suit in equity remains disputed to this day. The United States has expressly invoked, or implicitly relied on, Debs in some of the most high-profile cases in recent years, including United States v. Texas.

This Article explains the equitable principles at work in Debs and shows how these principles still have a normative basis today. Collecting materials from traditional equity practice and historic treatments of Debs that have escaped the attention of the recent academic literature, this Article especially considers the connection that the Debs Court draws between equitable relief and a proprietary interest. It shows how the equity-property connection works as an empowering and limiting principle for the ability of the United States to bring a suit in equity. And it offers guidance to the federal courts by explaining and defending the traditional contours of their equity jurisdiction.

Keywords: equity, federal courts, remedies

Suggested Citation

Bamzai, Aditya and Bray, Samuel L., Debs and the Federal Equity Jurisdiction (May 2, 2022). 98 Notre Dame Law Review 699 (2022), Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2023-06, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3953534 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3953534

Aditya Bamzai

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Samuel L. Bray (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

HOME PAGE: http://law.nd.edu/directory/samuel-bray/

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