I've just read this article on Slate. In it, they describe how Trump's administration has ignored deadlines imposed by the U.S. District Court after losing a case to SCOTUS (I bolded the most relevant specific example).

The Trump administration announced on Tuesday that it will continue to defy a federal court order compelling the full restoration of DACA, the Obama-era program that allows 700,000 immigrants to live and work in the United States legally. By doing so, the administration has chosen to flout a decision by the Supreme Court, effectively rejecting the judiciary’s authority to say what the law is.

Donald Trump first attempted to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017, a move that would’ve stripped its beneficiaries of work permits and subjected them to deportation. But his administration continually cut corners, failing to explain the basis for its decision and refusing to consider the impact of DACA repeal on immigrants, their communities, and their employers (including the U.S. Army). This June, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious” under federal law and therefore “set aside” DACA repeal.

To implement that decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm compelled the administration to restore DACA to its pre-repeal condition on July 17. Grimm’s order required the Department of Homeland Security to let DACA beneficiaries renew their status for two years, accept new applicants, and restore “advance parole,” which permits travel outside the country. But DHS did not do that. Instead, the agency maintained that it would reject new DACA applicants. It also declined to accept DACA renewals or reinstate advance parole.

Does SCOTUS and the judicial branch have any way to actually enforce laws on the executive branch? It's one thing to enforce laws on some random citizen, but it seems there is no way for SCOTUS to enforce laws against the branch of government that's responsible for enforcing laws.

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    "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." ---attributed to Andrew Jackson. Jul 29, 2020 at 1:49
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    "It's one thing to enforce laws on some random citizen" - Is it? They can't even do that by themselves. They need the executive branch (i.e. the police or US marshal or someone with a gun) to really enforce anything if it comes down to resisting.
    – Doug
    Jul 29, 2020 at 2:15
  • @Doug All I meant by that is, the executive branch has no direct conflict of interest with enforcing laws on a random citizen, so there's little reason for them to disobey SCOTUS there.
    – spacetyper
    Jul 29, 2020 at 2:16

4 Answers 4


The US courts (including the US Supreme Court) do not have an army or even a police force under their direct control, except for a few court bailiffs. Ultimately, if the executive simply defies the courts, the only remedy is a political one.

A court can order a person held unlawfully to be released from detention, but the jail/prison authorizes might ignore such an order. A court might order DACA applications to be accepted, and if they are not, might rule that deportations or other negative actions are unlawful. A court might hold persons who defy its orders in contempt, and send marshals to jail such persons. But if the executive branch in an organized way defies such orders, there is no judicial power to compel obedience to court orders.

This is why the judiciary has famously been called the "least dangerous branch" of the government: it cannot actually do anything without at least the tacit cooperation of the executive.

Cherokee Case (Worcester v. Georgia)

There was a reference in the comments above to the the Cherokee Indians case, Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832). In that case the US Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall held that the Georgia laws purporting to seize Cherokee lands were invalid as violations of Federal treaties. President Jackson was strongly displeased by this ruling. He was supposed to have said:

John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.

It appears that President Jackson probably did not say that, at least not publicly. But in fact Jackson did not take any steps to enforce the decision, and the decision was in fact not enforced. The lands were seized, and the Cherokee were forcibly relocated across the infamous trail of tears. This event shows that a court ruling (proper or improper) may have no effect if the executive branch refuses to obey or enforce it.

  • That's pretty good, but if the Court sends people to prison, then the Court should be able to release them. An exception might be made if the individual committed some new, documented crime within the prison. Jul 7, 2022 at 21:48
  • @Mark Rosenblitt-Janssen If people have been imprisoned or jailed improperly, courts can and do order them released. But if the prison authorities do not unlock the doors and let the prisoner go, the court has no means to force the authorities to do so without the cooperation of some part of the executive branch. Usually court orders are obeyed, and the executive lends any force needed to compel compliance. But should the executive defy an order, the courts have no recourse, except to seek aid from some other part of the executive branch. Mar 8, 2023 at 16:14
  • That all said, the executive typically follows the court orders because the political optics are not good... and the executive is under SCOTUS microscope often. Their non-compliance might not be enforceable... but that might change SCOTUS's opinion in a decision they would find in the Executive's favor otherwise.
    – hszmv
    Mar 8, 2023 at 17:24
  • @DavidSiegel: In the type pf event you mention, a higher-level executive or judicial branch could be called upon. If that is not available, because the president refuses what the supreme court ordered, then they have to broker an agreement. This is new legal theory, AFAIK, but the proper balance of power would require some kind of negotiation when there is a disagreement between the top (President) and the bottom (Supreme Court). Mar 9, 2023 at 20:08
  • @Mark Rosenblitt-Janssen Perhaps such a negotiation would make sense. But there is no procedure for it in the constitution or the laws as far as i know, and I cannot think of a case where it has been done. When you look at actual disagreements between th president and the Courts, that is not how they have been handled. Mar 9, 2023 at 22:10

Does SCOTUS and the judicial branch have any way to actually enforce laws on the executive branch?

Yes, although in practice, it is almost always trial courts and not the U.S. Supreme Court, that enforces orders.

The most common approach if an executive branch official defies a court order is to hold the official in contempt of court subject to incarceration and/or daily fines until the official complies or resigns. Typically, the lowest level official with the power to comply with the order is targeted for contempt of court charges.

This is not a vanishingly rare procedure and was done, for example, in this case in October of 2021: "The judge ordered Quincy Booth, the director of the city's Department of Corrections, and Wanda Patten, the warden of the DC Jail, to be held in contempt of court" (although neither incarceration nor a fine was imposed in that particular case). Also usually the government official can end to ongoing punishment by resigning from office and thereby depriving the official from the authority to carry out the order. This said, it very rarely reaches the point where a government official is personally punished in any meaningful way for disobeying the court order:

If any corporate entity disobeys a judicial order, the corporate officer responsible for the entity’s disobedience can be sanctioned for contempt. This would seem to imply that the federal official responsible for an agency’s disobedience can be sanctioned, including by imprisonment. The Justice Department itself appears to accept this view. To be sure, it hasn’t always done so. Back in the 1950s, DOJ contended that individual federal officials are absolutely immune to contempt sanctions for official acts, similar to their absolute immunity to common-law tort damages. But in more recent briefing in 1997 and 2008, DOJ distanced itself from this blanket immunity claim.

That said, there is another line of argument — less categorical and more prudential — for the government to fall back on: that a court should not sanction a person who makes all reasonable efforts to comply. The concept of reasonable effort must be understood in light of the nature of the noncompliant organization and each official’s position within it. Recall that compliance problems are most common when the judge’s order tells the agency to do something costly or complex. That kind of order implicates the agency’s resource limitations, its competing legal mandates and priorities, and the question of what kind of technical and scientific information it needs to acquire to formulate its action correctly. A judge assessing how the agency handles these issues ends up having to make complicated judgments about agency management. Identifying an official as blameworthy for noncompliance entails an especially fraught judgment of this variety: the judge must figure out which official(s) should’ve acted, and what the official(s) should’ve done. To be sure, higher-level agency officials — up to and including the agency head — are formally responsible for whatever happens below them, but before a judge could imprison an agency head or other manager for noncompliance, she would probably need to find that actions promoting compliance were reasonably within that manager’s grasp and that the manager failed to take them.

In light of these prudential concerns, the judiciary has shown great reluctance to imprison officials. Imprisonment has occurred only twice, never for more than a few hours, and in both instances, the biggest losers proved to be the imprisoning judges, one of whom was thrown off the case for bias, while the other recused himself to avoid a similar fate. Cases coming near to imprisonment are almost equally rare. In the most spectacular of these — and the only federal agency contempt case of any kind to get near the Supreme Court — the Commerce Secretary in 1951 engaged in unusually clear disobedience when told to return the shares in a bailed-out company to their private owners. The D.C. Circuit ordered the Secretary jailed, only to have the Supreme Court stay the sanction at the eleventh hour — and grant certiorari in the case despite its previous refusal to do so. Justice Robert Jackson wrote separately to say the Court should’ve demanded immediate adversary briefing on the stay rather than simply grant it indefinitely — a move that, in his view, rewarded the government for its disobedience and signaled that the Justices had no stomach to use force against official lawbreaking. Soon after, the plaintiffs settled for a 50% discount, and the case basically disappeared from memory, setting no precedent. Doctrinally, the door remains open to imprisoning federal officials, yet judges’ prudential reluctance has proven extremely strong.

This is generally carried out by the U.S. Marshal's office, which while located in the U.S. Justice Department, which overall is in the President's chain of command, but directly reports as a practical matter mostly to the orders of the judges of the federal district court to which the marshal is assigned.

  • The Supreme Court -- officially -- would have no official ability to enforce their claim of contempt. However, the president did swear an oath to uphold the Constitution to the best of their ability. They could be arrested by their own citizens and taken to Court for breaking their oath -- a civil case, I presume, and citizens could hunt them down to put them before the Judge. Mar 16, 2023 at 18:47
  • @MarkRosenblitt-Janssen As a matter of law, the Supreme Court, under the all writs act, has the ability to hold public officials, including the President, in contempt of court and has the ability to order federal government law enforcement officers such as U.S. Marshalls to enforce that order and to order other federal employees to not interfere. There is no need for citizen arrests. A court order trumps a Presidential order. Of course, if people break the law (which happens every day) the power of judges and legislators is diminished as a result because we don't live in a perfect world.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:01

I believe that the SCOTUS can find the agency(s) in contempt of the court and have them jailed pending a hearing or trial as appropriate and that the individuals accountable start with the lowest member with power of compliance all the way up the chain to the president and/or the speaker of the House. Even greater power is available to the SCOTUS if they choose to publicly declare regulations or statutes as being unconstitutional and are therefore unlawful ie; advising the public that such laws are not constitutionally legal, publicly state the actions as null and void and are unenforceable and that citizens do not need to comply. Suppose the SCOTUS establishes an office of public information and legal Compliance. Neither the Executive or Legislative Branches could withstand the publicizing of their refusal to comply.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. Jul 6, 2022 at 15:27
  • "...have them jailed". By whom, though? The police and marshals report to the executive. If there's a disagreement about the Law and upholding the Constitution between the (highest) Executive and the Judicial branches, there is no procedure: they must negotiate the difference (or somehow the People and the Press resolve it). Mar 11, 2023 at 22:24

If an executive branch broke the law or is against the law in some way, then the Supreme Court can only inform the public about the issue. It has no enforcement abilities -- even sentencing it must appeal to the Executive Branch to enforce any sentences.

There is one executive branch in the US and it isn't the Supreme Court. If the Judge claimed contempt of Court over the Executive, and the Exucutive denies the claim, you have a two-player standoff.

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