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Question is in the title. Another formulation: Are there any circumstances under which a defendant may lawfully decline to comply with a federal court order? A sort of mini-appeal process, if you will?

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Are there any circumstances under which a federal court order may be lawfully ignored? A sort of mini-appeal process, if you will?

Yes. It does require the non-compliant to perform some proceedings, as your last sentence correctly conjectures.

Depending on the context and details of proceedings, the non-compliant party would need to pursue one or more of the following:

  • in an appellate court, an application for leave to appeal (or appeal by right, if proceedings in trial court have ended), perhaps requesting peremptory reversal when enforcement of the order would cause irreversible harm;
  • an appeal once the non-compliant party is found in contempt of court;
  • file in trial court a motion to set aside or quash the court order; or
  • be ready to justify --also in trial court-- non-compliance with that order when the adverse party files a motion to show cause toward enforcement thereof.
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A federal court order may be lawfully ignored if it has not be served (i.e. delivered in the manner set forth in court rules) properly upon the person to whom it is directed, but it is exceedingly risky to do so if you have actual knowledge of the order, because "substituted service", "constructive notice" and similar doctrines can cause a court order to be effective even if it is not properly served upon you and a court will typically assume that an order has been properly served upon you until it learns otherwise.

As a practical matter, it is also possible to ignore a federal court order if neither you, nor any property or contract rights that you have, are subject to the jurisdiction of the court.

Given that you have tagged your post subpoena, it is worth understanding that a subpoena and a court order are generally not the same thing.

A subpoena is a document signed by an attorney or court clerk directing someone to appear at a certain time and place to provide testimony and/or to provide documents at a certain time and place, which is governed by rules set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 (in civil cases). It is not normally signed by a judge. The subpoena does not involve a decision made by the court. Rule 45 also sets forth the procedure to be followed in the trial court to object to the subpoena (often in what is called a "motion to quash" filed in the trial court). Generally speaking, objections to a subpoena, other than lack of service, are waived if not raised by the relevant deadline. Normally a subpoena must be hand delivered personally to the person whose testimony is requested. Slightly more complicated rules apply to subpoenas served upon organizations. Ignoring a subpoena will, generally speaking, result in the issuance of a warrant for your arrest if you are not a party to a lawsuit in which it is issued.

A court order is a decision of a judge making a decision about some request that has been made to it (or issued sua sponte without any party's request by the court in a pending lawsuit or legal proceeding). A court order is typically entered by a court after a court case has been commenced with some other document, is issued by the court, and often will direct someone to do something or refrain from doing something (technically an order can declare that someone owes someone else money, but that is more often called a "judgment", or can declare the legal rights of parties, but that is more often called a "decree", or can direct a generic government official to take some sort action, but that is more often called a "writ"). A court order is usually effective upon receipt (sometimes after a brief "stay") unless the court issues another order staying its ruling, usually subject to the requirement that a bond be posted in the meantime. One can file a motion in the trial court (or other court issuing the order) asking that an order be reconsidered, or can appeal that order to a higher court, but you usually can't just ignore it.

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