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[Latin, We comand.] A writ or order that is issued from a court of superior jurisdiction that commands an inferior tribunal, corporation, Municipal Corporation, or individual to perform, or refrain from performing, a particular act, the performance or omission of which is required by law as an obligation.

A writ or order of mandamus is an extraordinary court order because it is made without the benefit of full judicial process, or before a case has concluded. It may be issued by a court at any time that it is appropriate, but it is usually issued in a case that has already begun.

Generally, the decisions of a lower-court made in the course of a continuing case will not be reviewed by higher courts until there is a final judgment in the case. On the federal level, for example, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1291 provides that appellate review of lower-court decisions should be postponed until after a final judgment has been made in the lower court. A writ of mandamus offers one exception to this rule. If a party to a case is dissatisfied with some decision of the trial court, the party may appeal the decision to a higher court with a petition for a writ of mandamus before the trial proceeds. The order will be issued only in exceptional circumstances.

The writ of mandamus was first used by English courts in the early seventeenth century. It migrated to the courts in the American colonies, and the law on it has remained largely the same ever since. The remedy of mandamus is made available through court opinions, statutes, and court rules on both the federal and state levels. On the federal level, for example, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1651(a) provides that courts "may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."

The Supreme Court set forth some guidelines on writs of mandamus in Kerr v. United States District Court, 426 U.S. 394, 96 S. Ct. 2119, 48 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1976). In Kerr, the Court upheld the denial of a writ of mandamus sought by prison officials to prevent the district court from compelling them to turn over personnel and inmate files to seven prisoners who had sued the prison over alleged constitutional violations. The officials argued that turning over the records would compromise prison communications and confidentiality.

The Supreme Court observed in Kerr that the writ of mandamus was traditionally used by federal courts only to confine an inferior court to a lawful exercise of its jurisdiction, or to compel an inferior court to exercise its authority when it had a duty to do so. The Court also noted that mandamus is available only in exceptional cases because it is so disruptive of the judicial process, creating disorder and delay in the trial. The writ would have been appropriate, opined the Court, if the trial court had wrongly decided an issue, if failure to reverse that decision would irreparably injure a party, and if there was no other method for relief. Because the prison officials could claim a privilege to withhold certain documents, and had the right to have the documents reviewed by a judge prior to release to the opposing party, other remedies existed and the writ was inappropriate.

Although traditionally writs of mandamus are rare, they have been issued in a growing number of situations. They have been issued by federal courts when a trial judge refused to dismiss a case even though it lacked jurisdiction; refused to reassign a case despite a conflict of interest; stopped a trial for Arbitration or an administrative remedy; denied a party the opportunity to intervene, to file a cross-claim, or to amend a Pleading; denied a Class Action; denied or allowed the consolidation or severance of two trials; refused to permit depositions; or entered an order limiting or denying discovery of evidence. The writ of mandamus can also be issued in a mandamus proceeding, independent of any judicial proceeding. Generally, such a petition for a mandamus order is made to compel a judicial or government officer to perform a duty owed to the petitioner. For example, in Massachusetts, each year the commonwealth's attorney general and each district attorney must make available to the public a report on wiretaps and other interceptions of oral communications conducted by law enforcement officers. If the report is not made available, any person may compel its production by filing an action for mandamus (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 272, § 99 [West 1996]). If successful, a court would issue an order directing the attorney general and district attorneys to produce the information. The attorney general and district attorneys have a chance to defend their actions at a hearing on the action. If the parties fail to comply with a mandamus order, they may be held in Contempt of court and fined or jailed.

Further readings

Hazard, Geoffrey C., Jr., et al. 1999. Pleading and Procedure, State and Federal: Cases and Materials. 8th ed. New York: Foundation Press.

Wyler, Robert A. 1990. Legalines: Civil Procedures. 3d ed. Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Legal & Professional.


(man-dame-us) n. Latin for "we order," a writ (more modernly called a "writ of mandate") which orders a public agency or governmental body to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so. Examples: After petitions were filed with sufficient valid signatures to qualify a proposition for the ballot, the city refuses to call the election, claiming it has a legal opinion that the proposal is unconstitutional. The backers of the proposition file a petition for a writ ordering the city to hold the election. The court will order a hearing on the writ and afterwards either issue the writ or deny the petition. Or a state agency refuses to release public information, a school district charges fees to a student in violation of state law, or a judge will not permit reporters entry at a public trial. All of these can be subject of petitions for a writ of mandamus. (See: writ of mandate)


noun charge, command, decree, direct, legislate, order, rule
Associated concepts: writ of mandamus
See also: fiat


‘we command’, formerly a writ, now an order of court that commands a person, corporation or tribunal to carry out its duty. It is used to regulate the proceedings of tribunals and the like. In Scotland, the Court of Session has a general supervisory jurisdiction that allows it to achieve the same effect and, indeed, probably more. See JUDICIAL REVIEW.

MANDAMUS, practice. The name of a writ, the principal word of which when the proceedings were in Latin, was mandamus, we command.
     2. It is a command issuing in the name of the sovereign authority from a superior court having jurisdiction, and is directed to some person, corporation, or, inferior court, within the jurisdiction of such superior court, requiring them to do some particular thing therein specified, which appertains to their office and duty, and which the superior court has previously determined, or at least supposes to be consonant to right and justice. 20 Pick. 484; 21 Pick. 258; Dudley, 37; 4 Humph. 437.
     3. Mandamus is not a writ of right, it is not consequently granted of course, but only at the discretion of the court to whom the application for it is made; and this discretion is not exercised in favor of the applicant, unless some just and useful purpose may be answered by the writ. 2 T. R. 385; 1 Cowen's R. 501; 11 Shepl. 151; 1 Pike, 11.
     4. This writ was introduced to prevent disorders from a failure of justice; therefore it ought to be used upon all occasions where the law has established no specific remedy, and where in justice and good government there ought to be one. 3 Burr. R. 1267; 1 T. R. 148, 9.; 2 Pick. 414; 4 Pick. 68; 10 Pick. 235, 244; 7 Mass; 340; 3 Binn. 273; 5 Halst. 57; Cooke, 160; 1 Wend. 318; 5 Pet. 190; 1 Caines, R. 511; John. Cas. 181; 12 Wend. 183; 8 Pet. 291; 12 Pet. 524; 2 Penning. 1024; Hardin, 172; 7 Wheat. 534; 5 Watts. 152; 2 H. & M. 132; 3 H. & M. 1; 1 S. & R. 473; 5 Binn. 87; 3 Conn. 243; 2 Virg. Cas. 499; 5 Call. 548. Mandamus will not lie where the law has given another specific remedy. 1 Wend. 318; 10 John. 484; 1 Cow. 417; Coleman, 117; 1 Pet. 567; 2 Cowen, 444; 2 McCord, 170; Minor, 46; 2 Leigh, 165; Const. Rep. 165, 175, 703.
     5. The 13th section of the act of congress of September, 24, 1789, gives the supreme court power to issue writs of mandamus in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States. The issuing of a mandamus to courts, is the exercise of an appellate jurisdiction, and, therefore constitutionally vested in the supreme court; but a mandamus directed to a public officer, belongs to original jurisdiction, and by the constitution, the exercise of original jurisdiction by the supreme court is restricted to certain specified cases, which do not comprehend a mandamus. The latter clause of the above section, authorizing this writ to be issued by the supreme court, to persons holding office under the authority of the United States, is, therefore, not warranted by the constitution, and void. 1 Cranch, R. 175.
     6. The circuit courts of the United States may also issue writs of mandamus, but their power in this particular, is confined exclusively to those cases in which it may be necessary to the exercise of their jurisdiction. 7 Cranch, R. 504; 8 Wheat. R. 598; 1 Paine's R. 453. Vide, generally, 3 Bl. Com. 110; Com. Dig. h. t; Bac. Ab. h.t.; Vin. Ab. h.t.; Selw. N. P. h.t.; Chit. Pr. h.t.; Serg. Const. Index, h.t.; Ang. on Corp. Index, h.t.; 3 Chit. Bl. Com. 265 n. 7; 1 Kent. Com. 322; Dane's Ab. Index, h.t.; 6 Watts & Serg. 386, 397; Bouv. Inst. Index, h.t.; and the article "Courts of the United States."

References in periodicals archive ?
Prohibition--Unlike under Florida law, federal writs of prohibition are closely related to federal writs of mandamus, such that the two are often sought in tandem and spoken of interchangeably.
The Supreme Court shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts and courts of the several states, in the cases herein after specially provided for; and shall have power to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts, when proceeding as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under authority of the United States.
He specializes in commercial, corporate and partnership litigation, landlord-tenant issues, writs of mandamus, writs of attachment and forfeiture matters.
At least two appellate courts have issued writs of mandamus under circumstances in which a trial court has not set a properly noticed case for trial.
Trial practitioners will generally seek writs of mandamus, prohibition, or habeas corpus.