Three-Judge Court

Author:Kenneth L. Karst

Page 2701

The Supreme Court's decision in EX PARTE YOUNG (1908) made it possible for one federal judge to tie up an entire state legislative program by granting preliminary injunctive relief. In 1910 Congress required certain applications for federal-court INTERLOCUTORY injunctions against state officers to be heard by three judges. Such a court's order was made directly appealable to the Supreme Court. A similar statutory scheme had been devised earlier for certain ANTITRUST and railroad regulation cases. The 1948 revision of the JUDICIAL CODE made clear that the three-judge requirement applied to all hearings on applications for interlocutory or permanent INJUNCTIONS against state officers.

A considerable body of law developed out of this statute. Applications for DECLARATORY JUDGMENTS were not subject to the requirement, although injunctive relief is authorized to enforce a declaratory judgment. Three-judge courts were required only for actions seeking to enjoin state officers in carrying out statutes of general and statewide application, not local ordinances. While three judges were ordinarily necessary to deny injunctive relief as well as grant it, a single judge could dismiss such an action when it was "insubstantial."

The system of three-judge courts was enormously burdensome, both on the lower federal courts and on the Supreme Court. In 1976, Congress drastically limited the three-judge requirement, retaining it only...

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