The U.S. Supreme Court may in its appellate jurisdiction issue a writ of prohibition and mandamus in admiralty cases. A writ is issued only in exceptional cases. Generally, writs of prohibition or mandamus are issued to confine a district court to a lawful exercise of its prescribed jurisdiction, and to compel the district court to exercise its authority.[i] The purpose of issuing a writ to a district court is to prevent unlawful assumption or exercise of jurisdiction and not to correct errors or irregularities.
A writ of mandamus is issued under following circumstances:
- When there is a clear abuse of discretion or violation of a duty imposed by law; and ;
- When there is absence of a clear and adequate remedy at law.
Abuse of discretion by a district court arises from a failure to analyze or apply the law correctly. District court’s erroneous legal conclusion, even in an unsettled area of law, amounts to an abuse of discretion.[ii]
Moreover a five-part standard guide for the issuance of writs of mandamus was discussed in Calderon v. United States Dist. Court, 144 F.3d 618 (9th Cir. Cal. 1998). They are:
- whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to attain the relief s/he desires;
- whether the party will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal;
- whether the decision is clearly erroneous as a matter of law;
- whether the district court’s order is an often repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for the federal rules; and
- whether the district court’s order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression.
Although, all five standards need not be satisfied for issuing mandamus, the third factor, i.e., the existence of clear error as a matter of law, must be established. The U.S. Supreme Court has full power in its discretion to issue the writ of mandamus to a federal district court, although a direct appellate jurisdiction is vested in the circuit court of appeals.[iii]
On the other hand, a writ of prohibition is designed to operate like an injunction issued by a superior court to control, limit, or prevent action in a court of inferior jurisdiction. Prohibition is issued only to prevent the threatened commission of a future act. However, prohibition is an extraordinary proceeding, and a party seeking a writ of prohibition must fulfill the following conditions:
- that the party has no other adequate remedy at law; and
- that the party is clearly entitled to the relief sought.
A mere possibility that a district court will act without jurisdiction will not justify a writ of prohibition.[iv] By issuing writ of prohibition, Supreme Court prohibits a district court from proceeding in an admiralty case in which the district court lacks jurisdiction.
Although, the U.S. Supreme Court has ultimate discretionary jurisdiction in issuing writ, the power will be exercised only;
- where a question of public importance is involved; or
- where the question is of such a nature that an action by the U.S. Supreme Court should be taken.
Ordinarily, an application for a writ must be made to the intermediate appellate courts. Application to the United States Supreme Court can be preferred only in exceptional cases.[v]. Thus, it can be seen that a writ is issued by U.S.Supreme Court only in cases of public importance and in matters bearing exceptional character. The U.S. Supreme Court, when refusing to grant a relief, will direct the applicant to pursue his/her remedies in proper court of appeal.
[i] Roche v. Evaporated Milk Association, 319 U.S. 21(U.S.1943)
[ii] Ex parte United States, 287 U.S. 241 (U.S. 1932).
[iii] Calderon v. United States Dist. Court, 144 F.3d 618 (9th Cir. Cal. 1998)
[iv] In re Lewis, 223 S.W.3d 756 (Tex. App. 2007).
[v] Ex parte United States, 287 U.S. 241 (U.S. 1932).