What Is a Writ of Mandamus?

A writ of mandamus (also called a writ of mandate) is a court order issued by a judge at a petitioner’s request compelling any government, corporation, or public authority to execute a duty that they are legally obligated to complete.

A writ of mandamus can also be issued when the authority of a higher court is required to order a lower court or government agency to complete a duty to uphold the law or to correct an abuse of discretion. The writ of mandamus can be used to order a task to be completed, or in other cases, it may require an activity to be ceased. A writ of mandamus is acquired through a petition to the court.

Key Takeaways

  • A writ of mandamus is a court order compelling someone to execute a duty that they are legally obligated to complete.
  • A writ of mandamus is also used to order a lower court or government agency to complete a duty to uphold the law or to correct an abuse of discretion.
  • In general, a writ is a written command in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in some way.
  • Writs of mandamus are unique because they can be made without completing the full judicial process or before a case has concluded. 
  • A writ of mandamus is deemed necessary when the actions (or inaction) of government bodies or corporate officials are so inappropriate or egregious that immediate, emergency action needs to be taken by the legal system.

Understanding a Writ of Mandamus

In general, a writ is a written command in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in some way. There are many types of writs, including a writ of attachment, a writ of execution, and a writ of seizure and sale.

A writ of mandamus is unique because it can be made without completing the full judicial process or before a case has concluded. For this reason, this type of writ is very powerful. At the same time, they are rarely used because a petitioner must prove there are no other remedies to the situation and that someone is suffering an injustice due to the failure to comply with the law. Judges prefer not to issue writs unless it is completely necessary because of the disruption they cause to the legal process.

A writ of mandamus is deemed necessary when the actions (or inaction) of government bodies or corporate officials are so inappropriate or egregious that immediate, emergency action needs to be taken by the legal system.

In general, if a writ of mandamus is ordered from a court of superior jurisdiction to a lower court in the course of a continuing case, it will not be reviewed by higher courts until there is a final judgment in the case. For example, on the federal level, appellate review of lower courts must be postponed until after a final judgment has been made in the lower court.

Writs of mandamus are applicable in cases where it is obvious that an entity is owed a specific right but there are no available legal remedies for enforcing that right.

History of Writs of Mandamus

Writs of mandamus were first used by English courts in the early seventeenth century. After migrating to the courts in the American colonies, laws surrounding its usage have mostly remained the same. A writ of mandamus is a remedy that can be executed through court opinions, statutes, and court rules on both federal and state levels.

In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court issued some guidance on writs of mandamus in Kerr v. United States District Court. In this ruling, the Court denied the issuance of a writ of mandamus that was sought by prison officials. Using a writ of mandamus, the prison officials were trying to prevent the district court from compelling them to turn over personnel and inmate files to seven prisoners who had sued over what they claimed were constitutional violations. The prison officials made the case that turning over these files would compromise prison communications and confidentiality.

The Court held that there were less extreme alternatives for modification of the challenged discovery orders available. As a result, issuing a writ of mandamus was inappropriate. The Court provided that the writ would have been appropriate in several other scenarios: if the trial court had wrongly decided an issue, if failure to reverse that decision would irreparably injure a party, or if there was no other method for relief. Although writs of mandamus are traditionally rare, they have become more popular in specific scenarios.

A writ of mandamus can also be filed independently of any judicial proceedings. This is called a mandamus proceeding. For example, Massachusetts has a law that requires that the state's attorney general and every district attorney must publicize a report every year on wiretaps and other interceptions of oral communications conducted by law enforcement officers. If there is a year that the report is not made public, any public citizen can file an action for mandamus. If successful, a court would issue an order directing the attorney general and all the district attorneys to present the information. At this time, the attorney general and district attorneys have an opportunity to defend their actions at a hearing. If they fail to provide the document, they can be fined or jailed.

Types of Writs of Mandamus

Alternative Mandamus

An alternative mandamus is issued as the first step in the writ of mandamus process. The alternative mandamus commands the defendant to perform the act demanded or appear in court to explain the reason for not performing it. Basically, it requires that a person show cause that they should not be made to perform the act.

Peremptory Mandamus

A peremptory mandamus is issued when the defendant fails to prove sufficient reason for not performing the act in question to comply with the alternative mandamus. It is a final order of a court and an absolute command to the defendant to complete the act in question immediately. When the defendant fails to show sufficient cause in answer to an alternative mandamus, they are issued this formal written command.

Continuing Mandamus

In a writ of mandamus case, even after the court has given directions, the matter is not disposed of. At this point, the court assumes a supervisory role. While the writ remains pending, the court may make continual orders to ensure that the government, corporation, or public authority in question remains compliant. A continuing mandamus refers to the enforcement of a court's directions within a specified period of time.

33%

According to Federal judicial caseload statistics, the percentage increase in petitions for writs of mandamus and other types of writs in 2019.

Special Considerations

Writ of Mandamus at the Federal Level

Mandamus orders at the Federal level occur when a party to a suit desires to appeal a judge's decision but is blocked by rules against interlocutory appeals, an appeal of a trial court ruling that is submitted before the trial itself has concluded. In this case, the party sues the judge instead of appealing directly. The party seeks a mandamus that compels the judge to correct their earlier mistake. This indirect appeal can only be applied if there is no other way to seek a review. 

Writ of Mandamus at the State Level

At the state level, the rules on mandamus and similar orders vary by jurisdiction. For example, in California, there are two types of mandamus: an ordinary mandate and an administrative mandate.

An ordinary mandate is used by a court to compel state agencies to perform ministerial acts. A court may also use an ordinary mandate to compel some to take an office or enjoy a right to which they are entitled and from which they are being unlawfully prevented from assuming. Finally, an ordinary mandate may also be issued against a corporation.

An administrative mandate is used to review the validity of a final order or decision made as the result of a lawfully required mandamus hearing.

A court case in Florida, State ex rel. Evans v. Chappel, determined that the party asking for a writ of mandamus must demonstrate that they have a clear legal right to the commission of the specific act that is being ordered.

Examples of Writs of Mandamus

Writ of Mandamus and Apple

In September 2019, Uniloc Corporation, a patent assertion entity, filed an infringement suit in the Western District of Texas (WDTX) against Apple for allegedly infringing on Uniloc’s U.S. Patent No. 6,467,088 (the ’088 patent). In November 2019, Apple moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of California (NDCA) because they claimed it would be more convenient to litigate the case in the NDCA. In May 2020, the district court denied Apple's motion, saying it would issue a written order as soon as possible.

In June 2020, Apple filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC). On November 9, 2020, the CAFC granted Apple’s petition for a writ of mandamus. In accordance with the writ, the CAFC directed the WDTX to transfer Uniloc’s suit against Apple to the NDCA.

Writ of Mandamus and Microsoft

A patent infringement suit against Microsoft Corporation ultimately resulted in the company filing a writ of mandamus in January 2011. Allvoice Developments U.S., LLC asserted that speech recognition functionality in Microsoft's XP and Vista operating systems infringed upon their U.S. Patent No. 5,799,273, entitled “Automated Proofreading Using Interface Linking Recognized Words to Their Audio Data While Text is Being Changed.” Allvoice brought this suit in the Eastern District of Texas.

Microsoft filed a writ of mandamus after their request to transfer the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington was denied by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Microsoft claimed that the record plainly showed that the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington was clearly more convenient and fair for trial for the corporation, given that their corporate headquarters and a substantial portion of its employees and its operations are located in Western Washington.

Microsoft's motion also indicated that all of its witnesses relating to sales, marketing, and product direction and prior art speech recognition technology reside in the Western District of Washington. According to Microsoft, denying the case's transfer was a "clear abuse of discretion."

Writ of Mandamus and Google

In February 2020, Google petitioned the Federal Circuit for a writ of mandamus directing the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to dismiss the case (Super Interconnect Techs. LLC v. Google LLC) for lack of venue. The Federal Circuit held that the mandamus was warranted and ordered that the case either be dismissed or transferred. Google claimed that it did not have any active source of business is in the Eastern District of Texas.

However, during the oral argument, the Circuit judge raised a question about whether or not Google gathers information from customers (which is part of their business) and if that information gets passed back to Google through Google's server. The Circuit judge noted that there was an absence of sufficient information on record in order to understand Google's business model. The judge said it should be left to the District Court to decide whether or not Google's end-users in the Eastern District of Texas became customers of the company by entering searches and selecting results, and thus, continuously providing data for Google (which it then monetizes as the core aspect of its business model).

The Circuit judge further posed the question of whether or not Google is doing business at the computer of each of its users/customers but also left this to the District Courts to determine. 

Writ of Mandamus FAQs

What Does a Writ of Mandamus Mean?

A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to any government, subordinate court, corporation, or public authority to do (or refrain from doing) a specific act which that entity is obliged under law to do (or refrain from doing). In the U.S. justice system, an individual or entity cannot ask for a writ of mandamus unless it is a judicially enforceable and legally protected right. In other words, they must be denied a legal right by an entity that has a legal obligation to do something and abstains from doing it.

Why Is a Writ of Mandamus Important?

A writ of mandamus is a unique remedy and it is only used in exceptional circumstances. There is also a very high standard for gaining relief through a writ of mandamus. The act for which the applicant is compelling through a writ of mandamus must have two qualities: it must be a duty of public nature and the duty must be imperative and should not be discretionary. The main purpose of a writ of mandamus is to remedy injustices.

When Can a Writ of Mandamus Be Issued?

A writ of mandamus is remedial in nature. A writ can only be issued after the applicant is able to prove to the court that either a utilitarian or just question would be resolved by the writ. In addition, the petitioner must have a legal right to the act which they are petitioning for and an obstruction of this right must have been committed.

Is a Writ of Mandamus Constitutional?

Yes, a writ of mandamus is constitutional. A writ of mandamus is used in order to compel an entity to do (or refrain from doing) some specific act which they are obliged under law to do (or refrain from doing). However, a writ of mandamus cannot be used to compel an authority to do anything that would violate a law or statute.

The Bottom Line

A writ of mandamus (also called a writ of mandate) is a legal command to fulfill an administrative action or a public duty. A writ of mandamus can be used to order an act to be completed; in some cases, it may require an activity to be ceased. A writ of mandamus is obtained through a petition to a court and must be supplemented by legal rights. 

A writ of mandamus is only one type of writ. A writ of attachment is a court order to seize the property described in the writ. After the seizure, the property is held in the custody of an appointed official under court supervision. A writ of seizure and sale is a court order that allows the petitioner (usually a creditor) to take ownership of a property from a borrower. Once the property has been seized, it can be sold at an auction.