‘Common Law’: The Railroad Strike Case That Made History on Federal Injunctions

Professor Aditya Bamzai Discusses In re Debs With Risa Goluboff, John Harrison
Risa Goluboff, John Harrison and Aditya Bamzai

Photo illustration by Warren Craghead

April 1, 2022

A 19th century U.S. Supreme Court case involving a railroad strike still has ripple effects today on federal power and the courts, Professor Aditya Bamzai says on “Common Law,” a podcast of the University of Virginia School of Law.

The case, In re Debs, concerned the 1894 Pullman strike led by Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union and later a leader of the Socialist Party. A federal injunction ordered the strikers to resume work, but Debs refused to end the protest. After being held in contempt of court, Debs appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost unanimously, with justices ruling that the U.S. government had a sovereign interest in regulating interstate commerce and ensuring Postal Service operations.

As Bamzai explains to hosts Risa Goluboff and John C. Harrison, the variety of arguments the federal government used to assert its sovereign interest remain relevant today, as recently seen in U.S. Texas, which came to the Supreme Court on certiorari to the Fifth Circuit. In that case, the justices considered whether the federal government could stop the implementation of a Texas law making abortions illegal as early as six weeks into pregnancy. In December, the court dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted, and so ultimately did not review the Fifth Circuit’s decision on the merits.

The Texas law is enforced through civil lawsuits rather than by state or local officials, making it difficult for opponents to sue, which prompted the federal government to step in and file suit.

Bamzai, who teaches and writes about civil procedure, administrative law and federal courts, explores In re Debs in a new paper with Samuel L. Bray of Notre Dame Law School, “Debs and the Federal Equity Power.”

On the episode, Bamzai and the hosts also discuss Bamzai’s oral argument before the Supreme Court as an independent amicus in 2018, in Ortiz v. U.S.

This season, called “Co-Counsel” features a rotating set of co-hosts: Harrison, Danielle K. Citron, Cathy Hwang and Gregory Mitchell. Each is joining Goluboff to discuss cutting-edge research on law topics of their choice.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts. The show is produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente.

Past seasons have focused on “The Future of Law,” “When Law Changed the World” and “Law and Equity.”

You can follow the show on the website CommonLawPodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

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