Writ of Mandamus Overview & Examples | Writ of Mandamus Definition - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com (2022)

Shawn Custer, Wendy Faircloth
  • AuthorShawn Custer

    Shawn Custer has taught college-level English, composition, and literature for over six years. She has a Master’s in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University and a Bachelor's in English from Thomas Edison State University.

  • InstructorWendy Faircloth

    Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

Learn the meaning of writ of mandamus, and understand why, how, and when a writ of mandamus might be filed. Updated: 05/25/2022

Table of Contents

  • Writ of Mandamus
  • Filing a Writ of Mandamus
  • Writ of Mandamus Example
  • Lesson Summary
Show

Writ of Mandamus

A writ is defined as a formal, legal document. In Latin, the word mandamus means "we command." By definition, a writ of mandamus is a formal, legal document that commands a lower court or a government official to do something.

The United States court system is built on a foundation of autonomy for each level of the court. Courts must follow specific laws and procedures, but are generally able to operate as they see fit within those guidelines. Oversight usually comes in the form of appeals, where a higher court is petitioned to review the actions or decisions of a lower court and overturn the lower court's decision. A writ of mandamus is different, in that it serves as an action forcing the lower court to do something. As such, writs of mandamus are rather rare.

One of the earliest cases involving a request for a writ of mandamus came before the Supreme Court in the Marbury v. Madison case of 1803. In this case, William Marbury was one of the "Midnight Judges," a group of last-minute judicial appointees selected by outgoing president John Adams. Because these appointments were literally signed at the last minute, the appointments were not all delivered before the end of Adams' term as president.

When the new president, Thomas Jefferson, came into office, he ordered that his secretary of state, James Madison, stop the delivery of the appointments as his first presidential act. William Marbury went to the Supreme Court and asked for a writ of mandamus: an order compelling Madison, a government official, to do his duty and finish the judiciary appointments.

The ruling in that case was 4-0 against Marbury. The Supreme Court ruled that while it was illegal for Madison to not deliver the appointments, it was not the Court's place to compel Madison to complete the task. The Court ruled that parts of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that would have given them this authority were actually unconstitutional. Instead, the ruling established a more concrete application of judicial review. Today, the Supreme Court has basically ended the issuance of writs of mandamus, though it does still retain the power to do so.

Federal courts, however, do still issue and act on writs of mandamus. A United States Court of Appeals can issue a mandamus to a U.S. District Court, for example, but this process is used very sparingly. The courts prefer that cases go through the standard appeals process instead. The U.S. district courts do not have the authority to use writs of mandamus, but the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide other means of handling these kinds of issues.

State courts, on the other hand, do still use writs of mandamus, though they may be in other forms, such as mandates or other statutory procedures. These actions can be brought by state courts and applied against lower courts or government officials and are usually brought on behalf of the citizens of the state.

What is a Writ of Mandamus?

'But Your Honor…the law requires that you enforce the custody ruling in favor of my client! Even though another state issued the custody order, it is still legally binding here!'

'Sit down, Ms. Fernandez. I have ruled.'

Shaking her head with frustration, Ms. Fernandez heeds the judge's order to sit down. Looking over at her worried client, she whispers, 'Try not to worry. This isn't over. The minute we leave, I am going back to the office to prepare a petition for a writ of mandamus. We'll make sure this judge complies with the law.'

So what is a writ of mandamus? If you've ever read much about the legal system, you may have noticed many terms come from Latin. Mandamus means 'we command.' So, you may get the impression that some kind of order, or mandate, is imposed in a writ of mandamus. You're correct! A writ of mandamus is a somewhat uncommon, but important, legal maneuver.

A writ of mandamus can be issued by a judge at a petitioner's request when the authority of a higher court is needed to compel an action by an individual person, a government agency, or a lower court to do something they are legally required to do.

Writs of mandamus are not routine. Normally, court rulings go through the ordinary appeals process, where a higher court can make a ruling on the decision of a lower court. Before a petition for a writ of mandamus in a court case can be considered, a reason why the traditional appeals process wouldn't work or wouldn't be relevant needs to be demonstrated. No other legal relief, or solution to the problem, can be available in order for a writ of mandamus to be considered.

A writ of mandamus is basically a last resort. All other options to resolve the situation legally must have been attempted or not applicable before a judge considers granting a writ of mandamus. Also, the risk of a serious injustice occurring if action is not taken must be present. Let's get back to Ms. Fernandez and her client.

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  • 0:01 What Is a Writ of Mandamus?
  • 1:52 The Law Upheld
  • 2:52 Writ of Mandamus Examples
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
  • Video
  • Quiz
  • Course

Filing a Writ of Mandamus

Courts have different requirements for filing a writ of mandamus. At the federal level, the petition for a writ of mandamus must be filed with the circuit court clerk and copies must be given to all parties, including the court judge. The filing must include:

  • The name of the petitioner
  • The relief sought in the petition
  • Presentation of the issue
  • Facts and evidence to explain and support the petition
  • Reasons for the issuance of the mandamus
  • Copies of any orders, opinions, or parts of the record, as necessary

In addition to this list, one of the key criteria is that mandamus cannot be used in place of an appeal or to appeal the decision of a lower court.

Each state has its own rules and procedures for filing writs of mandamus, though they are usually similar to the federal requirements. There are also usually specific situations that allow for a filing of mandamus. These include:

  • Compelling a lower court to rule on a motion
  • Ordering a court to decide a case that was previously dismissed in error
  • Demanding the release of public records once a request has been made
  • Compelling a court-appointed attorney to provide information
  • Ordering the Department of Corrections to correctly and fairly apply credit for time served

In addition, there are limitations on filing a mandamus. The writ of mandamus cannot generally be used to:

  • Review or appeal the decision of a lower court
  • Control the behavior or procedures of a lower court
  • Sidestep the laws and restrictions governing court cases and procedures

Writ of Mandamus Example

In spite of the limitations and infrequency of use, there are cases where a writ of mandamus would be in order. A writ of mandamus could be filed against a government official who refuses to provide information that is legally required to be released to the public. Mandamus can also be filed against judges.

Judges are often honor-bound to recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal involvement or connection to one of the parties in the case. If a judge has personal knowledge of or a relationship with the family of a crime victim, for example, the judge may not be able to preside over the case in an unbiased manner. However, if the judge does not recuse themself, then one of the parties to the case could file a writ of mandamus to compel the judge to recuse and appoint another judge to the case.

In another example, if a county clerk does not want to issue a marriage license to a couple they believe should not be getting married, that couple could file a writ of mandamus against the clerk. The mandamus would be asking the court to force the clerk to do their job and issue the license as required and permitted by law.

In each of these examples, a party to the case must file for the writ of mandamus, including all of the relevant information to support the granting of the mandamus. The writ must include specific details of the issue and evidence that supports the issuance of a writ.

When a mandamus is filed, this opens a case in the state or federal court. The court will review the filing and issue a summons to the lower court or official, commanding a response to the petition. Usually, the lower court or official will respond by taking action on the issue, rather than directly responding to the mandamus. Once steps have been taken to resolve the issue, the lower court or official will ask to have the writ of mandamus case dismissed, which it will be if the issue at the root of the mandamus has been resolved. Rarely does a writ of mandamus case actually go all the way to a court proceeding. If it does, however, then the higher court will make a ruling on the mandamus, either ordering the requested compliance or dismissing the writ, thus upholding the position of the respondent.

Lesson Summary

In Latin, the word mandamus means "we command." A writ of mandamus is a legal filing asking a higher court to order a lower court or government official to do something. For example, a writ of mandamus might be filed in a case where a judge has a personal connection to a case or its participants but refuses to remove themself from the case. The mandamus would be asking the higher court to compel the lower court judge to appoint another judge to the case. A writ of mandamus might also be filed in a case where a government official is refusing to do some part of their job or refuses to release information that should be publicly available.

Writs of mandamus are rather uncommon, as there are other methods that can and should be taken first. Filing a writ of mandamus is serious and should only be done if all other possible solutions have been explored. The official filing must include specific information, including the details of the issue involved and supporting evidence that validates the request for the mandamus. A writ of mandamus can only be filed in certain circumstances and cannot be used in place of the appeals process or to appeal the decision of a lower court.

(Video) Designating the Record for Appellants

The Law Upheld

Hurrying back to her office, Ms. Fernandez quickly prepares a petition for a writ of mandamus, where she clearly states the urgency of her client's situation. If the judge does not enforce the legally binding custody order from another state, the noncustodial parent could take the child far away and deprive the custodial parent of her rights to her child. The noncustodial parent could even take the child out of the country! The situation is dire and needs immediate resolution.

After reviewing the petition submitted by Ms. Fernandez on behalf of her client, the appeals court issues a writ of mandamus ordering the trial judge to uphold state law and recognize the out-of-state custody order. The next business day, the trial judge complies with the writ and awards custody to Ms. Fernandez's client. With the immediate crisis resolved, Ms. Fernandez can now focus on the routine legal issues regarding questions of visitation and protecting the best interests of the child.

Writ of Mandamus Examples

Let's go over some general examples of other legal situations that might involve the use of a writ of mandamus. This might include:

  • A court trying to preside over a case in which it does not have the proper jurisdiction, or legal authority
  • A judge presiding over a case in which he or she has a conflict of interest and is refusing to recuse him/herself from the case; recuse means to take him/herself off the case and assign the case to another judge
  • An official who is legally required to release certain important information to the public and refuses to do so
  • A clerk refusing to issue a state certificate of foreign birth for a foreign-born adopted child whose adoption is recognized as final by state law

Lesson Summary

A writ of mandamus is an uncommon but important part of the American legal system. A judge in a higher court will consider a petition for a writ of mandamus in a legal situation in which a lower court is in error and an appeal is not available.

A writ of mandamus may also be used to order a government official to comply with the law if he/she has failed to do so and all other legal approaches have been attempted. If a judge grants a writ of mandamus, he or she is issuing a direct order from the bench to the lower court or government official, demanding they comply with the law in the disputed issue.

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What is a Writ of Mandamus?

'But Your Honor…the law requires that you enforce the custody ruling in favor of my client! Even though another state issued the custody order, it is still legally binding here!'

'Sit down, Ms. Fernandez. I have ruled.'

Shaking her head with frustration, Ms. Fernandez heeds the judge's order to sit down. Looking over at her worried client, she whispers, 'Try not to worry. This isn't over. The minute we leave, I am going back to the office to prepare a petition for a writ of mandamus. We'll make sure this judge complies with the law.'

So what is a writ of mandamus? If you've ever read much about the legal system, you may have noticed many terms come from Latin. Mandamus means 'we command.' So, you may get the impression that some kind of order, or mandate, is imposed in a writ of mandamus. You're correct! A writ of mandamus is a somewhat uncommon, but important, legal maneuver.

A writ of mandamus can be issued by a judge at a petitioner's request when the authority of a higher court is needed to compel an action by an individual person, a government agency, or a lower court to do something they are legally required to do.

Writs of mandamus are not routine. Normally, court rulings go through the ordinary appeals process, where a higher court can make a ruling on the decision of a lower court. Before a petition for a writ of mandamus in a court case can be considered, a reason why the traditional appeals process wouldn't work or wouldn't be relevant needs to be demonstrated. No other legal relief, or solution to the problem, can be available in order for a writ of mandamus to be considered.

A writ of mandamus is basically a last resort. All other options to resolve the situation legally must have been attempted or not applicable before a judge considers granting a writ of mandamus. Also, the risk of a serious injustice occurring if action is not taken must be present. Let's get back to Ms. Fernandez and her client.

The Law Upheld

Hurrying back to her office, Ms. Fernandez quickly prepares a petition for a writ of mandamus, where she clearly states the urgency of her client's situation. If the judge does not enforce the legally binding custody order from another state, the noncustodial parent could take the child far away and deprive the custodial parent of her rights to her child. The noncustodial parent could even take the child out of the country! The situation is dire and needs immediate resolution.

After reviewing the petition submitted by Ms. Fernandez on behalf of her client, the appeals court issues a writ of mandamus ordering the trial judge to uphold state law and recognize the out-of-state custody order. The next business day, the trial judge complies with the writ and awards custody to Ms. Fernandez's client. With the immediate crisis resolved, Ms. Fernandez can now focus on the routine legal issues regarding questions of visitation and protecting the best interests of the child.

Writ of Mandamus Examples

Let's go over some general examples of other legal situations that might involve the use of a writ of mandamus. This might include:

  • A court trying to preside over a case in which it does not have the proper jurisdiction, or legal authority
  • A judge presiding over a case in which he or she has a conflict of interest and is refusing to recuse him/herself from the case; recuse means to take him/herself off the case and assign the case to another judge
  • An official who is legally required to release certain important information to the public and refuses to do so
  • A clerk refusing to issue a state certificate of foreign birth for a foreign-born adopted child whose adoption is recognized as final by state law

Lesson Summary

A writ of mandamus is an uncommon but important part of the American legal system. A judge in a higher court will consider a petition for a writ of mandamus in a legal situation in which a lower court is in error and an appeal is not available.

A writ of mandamus may also be used to order a government official to comply with the law if he/she has failed to do so and all other legal approaches have been attempted. If a judge grants a writ of mandamus, he or she is issuing a direct order from the bench to the lower court or government official, demanding they comply with the law in the disputed issue.

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How do you prepare a writ of mandamus?

A writ of mandamus must include specific information, depending on where it is being filed. Generally, the writ must include the name of the petitioner, the specific details of the issue, and any supporting evidence or information.

On what grounds can a writ of mandamus be issued?

A writ of mandamus can be issued in order to compel a lower court or a government official to do something. For example, if a judge has a personal relationship with a party to a court case, that judge should appoint a new judge and a writ of mandamus could be issued if they do not.

(Video) Marbury vs. Madison: What Was the Case About? | History

What is an example of a writ?

A writ of mandamus can be filed against a court or a government official. For example, if a government official does not release information that should be made public, a writ of mandamus can be filed, asking the court to compel the official to release the information.

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FAQs

What is meant by writ of mandamus? ›

A (writ of) mandamus is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.

What is an example of a writ? ›

Any direct order that is issued under authority is a writ. Warrants and subpoenas are two common types of writs.

What is the meaning of mandamus in Indian Constitution? ›

A writ of mandamus or mandamus (which means "we command" in Latin), or sometimes mandate, is the name of one of the prerogative writs in the common law, and is "issued by a superior court to compel a lower court or a government officer to perform mandatory or purely ministerial duties correctly".

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