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Anti-Injunction Act (1793)

Anti-Injunction Act (1793)

James P. George

The Anti-Injunction Act limits federal courts' interference with lawsuits pending in state courts. Understanding the act requires a knowledge of injunctions, writs, and stays:

  • A writ is an order from a judge or government official relaying a command or an instruction. English common law used writs extensively for everything from notifying defendants of a lawsuit to giving instructions to lower government departments and officers.
  • An injunction is a type of writ ordering (enjoining) a person either to do something or refrain from it. Examples include ordering a defendant not to dispose of assets during a lawsuit, or, pertinent here, ordering a party to stop litigating a case in another court.
  • A stay is the temporary or permanent stopping of litigation. Thus, an injunction that stays a case orders a party to stop litigating, temporarily or permanently.

Understanding Federalism is also essential to this act. Because federal courts may appear to be more powerful than state courts, people have occasionally sought federal injunctions to stop state litigation. But the doctrine of federalismthe delicate constitutional balance between our state and federal governmentsdictates a careful approach to federal interference with state activities. Although the Constitution does not specifically authorize it, the Anti-Injunction Act helps maintain that balance. Apart from federalism, the act reflects a general rule in the United States and other countries that courts should not interfere with one another except in rare and important cases.


The Anti-Injunction Act is almost as old as the federal court system. In 1789 the first Congress created federal courts, and in 1793 the second Congress enacted the original Anti-Injunction Act (1 Stat. 334). It was less than a full sentence, merely part of a larger law giving individual Supreme Court justices the power to grant the writs of ne exeat (incarcerating fleeing debtors) and injunctions. The original act provided that "writs of ne exeat and of injunction may be granted by any judge of the supreme court ... nor shall a writ of injunction be granted to stay proceedings in any court of a state;..." The italicized clause is the original Anti-Injunction Act in its entirety.

Supreme Court justices are not all-powerful. With a mostly appellate role, the Supreme Court hears appeals from lower courts and then acts as an entire court rather than through its individual judges. For this reason, Supreme Court justices neither need nor have the same powers as trial court judges. In 1793, however, the United States was new and unsettled. Supreme Court justices were required to ride circuit, that is, to hold court with lower federal circuit judges who heard both trials and appeals in several locations, traveling by buggy or on horseback from one court to another. At times, quick action by one judge or justice was important, and the 1793 act ensured that the circuit-riding Supreme Court justices were legally equipped. It is interesting that the 1793 act referred to Supreme Court justices as judges, perhaps because they were required to act as lower federal court judges, but more likely because Congress deemed justice and judge as equivalents.

Without legislative history, and there is none for the 1793 act, we can only guess Congress's purpose. As noted in a Supreme Court case discussing the original act: "The precise origins of the [Anti-Injunction Act] are shrouded in obscurity..." but "the consistent understanding has been that its basic purpose is to prevent 'needless friction between state and federal courts'" (Mitchum v. Foster [1972]). Preventing needless friction is the heart of federalism, and the Anti-Injunction Act is one of federalism's best examples.

It appears from the 1793 act's placementas a clause in a paragraph limited to Supreme Court justicesthat the original Anti-Injunction Act was simply a limit on Supreme Court justices' power to grant injunctions. Judges in lower federal courts already had injunctive power and, from adopted English common law, were similarly limited in applying injunctions against state court lawsuits. Congress may have believed that a new statute giving Supreme Court justices the unusual power to grant individual injunctions should clarify the limits on this power. In any event, the 1793 statute gave each circuit-riding Supreme Court justice the individual power to grant injunctions, but made clear that this did not include the power to issue injunctions against, or enjoin, state court lawsuits.

In spite of this apparently narrow purpose, by 1807 courts were applying the 1793 act as a limit on all federal courts issuing injunctions against state court lawsuits. Diggs v. Wolcott (1807) is the first reported application, involving a federal court in Connecticut enjoining Diggs from his debt-collection lawsuit against Wolcott in a Connecticut state court. Applying the 1793 act, the Supreme Court reversed the lower federal court and dissolved the injunction against Wolcott's state litigation. This use of the 1793 act was appropriate only if the injunction was issued individually by a Supreme Court justice temporarily assigned to the lower court, a fact not recorded in the opinion. The decision was nevertheless correct because it also relied on common law that barred courts generally from enjoining related litigation in other courts.

Later nineteenth-century cases continued to apply the 1793 act to all federal courts, with or without a temporarily assigned Supreme Court justice. Perhaps the most interesting came in 1872 in Watson v. Jones, a dispute in a Louisville, Kentucky, church over which faction of the congregationantislavery or pro-slaverywas truly representative of the congregation as a whole. The controversy began in 1864 when the Presbyterian General Assembly adopted an anti-slavery, or abolitionist, policy. Although four-fifths of the Louisville congregation favored abolition, three pro-slavery trustees claimed title to the church. A Kentucky state trial court ruled for the abolitionists but was reversed by a state appellate court. At the abolitionists' request, a federal court enjoined the state lawsuit only to be reversed by the Supreme Court's application of the Anti-Injunction Act. The Supreme Court went on, however, to rule for the abolitionists because the state appellate court had improperly infringed on the Presbyterian General Assembly's decision.


The 1793 act's broad application to all federal courts was such an accepted practice that it became part of the statute in 1874, when Congress amended the Anti-Injunction Act and changed it from a simple clause to a separate statute. It now read: "The writ of injunction shall not be granted by any court of the United States to stay proceedings in any court of a State, except in cases where such injunction may be authorized by any law relating to proceedings in bankruptcy" (18 Stat. 137). Thus, in 1874 the Anti-Injunction Act was expressly directed to all federal courts, but with a built-in exception allowing injunctions to stop state litigation against someone who filed for bankruptcy in a federal court.

In the same period, federal judges were creating two other exceptions, that is, two other grounds for enjoining state court litigation. The first was to protect property claims filed first in federal court, and the second was to protect final federal court judgments from further state court litigation. These changes led, by the early twentieth century, to three routinely recognized exceptions that allowed injunctions: those expressly authorized by Congress (such as the bankruptcy exception), those involving property claims, and those protecting federal court judgments from state court interference.

Although not endorsed by Congress, these judge-made exceptions were generally unquestioned until 1941, when the Supreme Court turned a critical eye toward them in Toucey v. New York Life Insurance Co. In that case, an insurance company had won a federal lawsuit and was having to relitigate the claim in state court. The Supreme Court found the first two exceptions were valid, but struck down the third exception protecting parties from state court relitigation of a claim already decided in federal court. Congress disagreed and amended the act in 1948 to include all three exceptions. This legislatively overruled the Supreme Court's Toucey opinion and provided the Anti-Injunction Act's current language: "A court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments." (62 Stat. 968). The current act, then, continues to restrict federal courts from enjoining state court litigation, but incorporates all three exceptions.


The first exception is for injunctions "expressly authorized by Congress." Federal courts may enjoin state court litigation if Congress enacts a statute that expressly allows for an injunction, such as the bankruptcy statute. For these cases, Congress has decided that certain disputes ought to be litigated in federal court and that injunctions can be issued to stop parties from filing related claims in state courts.

Interestingly, expressly authorized does not mean that the statute has to include language authorizing injunctions. The Supreme Court held in Mitchum v. Foster (1972) that Congress's intent to authorize injunctions can be inferred. In Mitchum, a Florida prosecutor filed a state court action to close Mitchum's bookstore as a public nuisance. Mitchum sued in federal court, claiming violations of free speech and seeking an injunction against the state court action. Mitchum's suit was filed under a federal civil rights statute that did not mention injunctions. The lower federal court denied his request for an injunction, but the Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the civil rights law would be meaningless in some cases if injunctions were not available. Thus, where Congress creates a federal right, in this case Mitchum's free speech rights, and where that right can be protected only by stopping the state court action, Congress is deemed to have "expressly" included injunctive relief against the state court action.

The second exception is where the injunction is "necessary in aid of [the federal court's] jurisdiction." This exception applies to a limited category of cases involving property claims (including everything from land to Internet domain names) and cases where the federal court has ongoing jurisdiction over a process (such as reapportionment or the enforcement of an arbitration agreement). Once a federal court has asserted its jurisdiction over the property or process, it may enjoin parties from pursuing related claims in state court.

The third exception is "to protect or effectuate [federal] judgments." Also known as the "relitigation exception," it is tied to the Full Faith and Credit Act, which requires both state and federal courts to recognize each other's final judgments. Under this exception, the Anti-Injunction Act allows a federal court to enjoin state court lawsuits that will interfere with the federal court's final judgment. Unlike the second exception, which applies only to a narrow category of property and related cases, the relitigation exception applies to all final federal judgments. In Exxon Corp. v. Chick Kam Choo (1988), the Supreme Court explained that this exception is limited to final judgments on fully adjudicated issues actually decided by the federal court, and not to matters the court could decide later.


The Anti-Injunction Act protects only pending state court actions and does not apply to injunctions issued before the state lawsuit was filed. It applies only to state judicial proceedings, and not other functions a state court may perform (such as approving the conveyance of restricted Native American land or attorney disbarment proceedings, in which an attorney may lose the privilege to practice law). For judicial proceedings, the act protects all functions by the state court and its officers, from beginning to end. The act does not apply when the United States government seeks an injunction against state court action. Where one of its three exceptions applies, the Anti-Injunction Act does not authorize injunctions but merely permits them. Federal injunctive authority comes from the All Writs Act and from equity rules stated in Younger v. Harris (1971).


Two other federal statutes restrict federal court injunctions against state proceedings that, under these statutes, are not necessarily in a state court but may instead be in a state government agency. The first is the Johnson Act, prohibiting federal injunctions against "any order affecting rates chargeable by a public utility," but limited to cases not involving federal rights. The second is the Tax Injunction Act, which prohibits federal injunctions against the "assessment, levy, or collection of any state tax where a plain, speedy and efficient state court remedy is available."

See also: Judiciary act of 1789; Judiciary Act of 1801.


Bailyn, Bernard, ed. Debate on the Constitution. 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 1993.

Berger, Raoul. Federalism: The Founder's Design. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

George, James P. The Federal Courthouse Door. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers, 2d ed. Ed. Roy P. Fairfield. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Wright, Charles A. The Law of Federal Courts, 5th ed. Minneapolis: West Publishing, 1994.

Wright, Charles A., Arthur R. Miller, and Edward R. Cooper. Federal Practice and Procedure, Vol. 17 ©© 422126. Minneapolis: West Publishing, 1978.

Common Law

James P. George

The common law is a system of rights and procedures that developed in English courts in the twelfth century, forming the basis of much American law today. Although drawn partly from its predecessorsEnglish tribal custom, Roman law, and feudal lawthe common law's true beginning was in the reign of King Henry II, who formalized a system of courts whose judges would create the common law over the next several centuries. Westminster was the site for the central court, but common law judges also rode circuit in courts throughout England.

Unlike other legal systems, common law is made by judges rather than centralized authorities such as presidents or legislatures. Judges apply common law rules on a case-by-case basis, shaping the outcome to the particular facts of each case. Decisions become precedents which should be followed in future cases. But when facts differfor example, when a defendant has a good excuse for not paying for goodsthe judge might find an exception. As times and technology change, outdated precedents are overruled. Over time, the common law has grown into a significant body of law with well-structured rules and numerous exceptions.

The courts in America's English colonies applied England's common law, along with English statutes and their own colonial laws. After the American Revolution, and inspite of the new Americans' dislike of English rule, the new American states adopted English common law as their own, either in their new state constitutions or in statutes issued from the states' legislatures. In spite of many changes in the United States since 1775, much of our American law is derived from English common law.

Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law, 2d ed. New York: Touchstone, 1985; Plucknett, Theodore F.T. A Concise History of the Common Law, 2d ed. Rochester: Lawyers Co-op, 1936.

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