Morris v. Allen and the Lost History of the Anti-Injunction Act of 1793

Pfander, James E., Nazemi, Nassim | October 1, 2013

Adopted in 1793, the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA) has come to symbolize the early republic’s concern with protecting state court autonomy from an overbearing federal judiciary. Modern observers view the AIA and its prohibition of injunctions to stay state court proceedings as an absolute barrier to federal interposition. All agree that the origins of the Act were, as the Supreme Court observed, “shrouded in obscurity.”

To remove the shroud, we return to an eighteenth-century world in which separate courts of law and equity exercised concurrent jurisdiction, and courts of equity secured their role through injunctions to stay proceedings at law. One such proceeding unfolded in North Carolina, as founding financier Robert Morris attempted to stay the enforcement of an adverse state court judgment. The language of the AIA was likely drafted to address the specific problem of federal–state concurrency laid bare in that case, Morris v. Allen. By limiting its restriction to “writs of injunction,” the AIA barred original federal interposition but left the federal courts free to issue ancillary stays to protect federal jurisdiction and federal decrees. Reclaiming this lost distinction between original and ancillary injunctive relief calls for a fundamental reconsideration of the place of the 1793 Act in the legislative output of the early republic. Far from the absolute bar that it later became in the hands of twentieth-century jurists such as Felix Frankfurter, the 1793 Act struck a balance that protected state court autonomy even as it authorized federal judicial self- defense.