October 26, 2014
Mandamus, or a "writ of mandamus", can mean different things in different contexts. In the US, mandamus usually means an order from a higher court to prevent a lower court from doing something wrong. Mandamus is very unusual.
Remember that as a general rule, an appellate court only hears a case after all the proceedings in the lower court are finished. For example, a federal appellate court (Circuit Court) will not review what a federal trial court (District Court) did until the District Court trial is complete or until the District Court issues a decision that permanently ends the case, such as by granting summary judgment for one side.
Mandamus is one exception to our general rule. Let's say a party thinks that a federal trial court has made such a terribly wrong decision and the party requires urgent intervention from an appeals court. In that case, the party can ask for mandamus from the appellate court. Some typical requirement for mandamus are:
- the party has no other way of getting help (if the appellate court does not issue an order of mandamus the party has no other way to protect its rights);
- if the party waits until the case is ready for appeal it will be too late.
Parties seeking mandamus might also argue that the district court keeps repeating the same mistake or that the issue presented is new and important.
Again, mandamus is very unusual. Where a court exceeds its jurisdiction an appellate court might issue a writ of mandamus. For example, in one case the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a federal trial court exceeded its jurisdiction with respect to a lawsuit against judges in Puerto Rico.
A party seeking mandamus should be careful - - the appellate court will probably not agree that mandamus is appropriate and he'll only succeed in making the trial court judge unhappy.