Mindful of the common law maxim “that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy,”1×1. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 163 (1803). the Supreme Court has often inferred a private right of action in the face of statutory or constitutional silence.2×2. See, e.g., Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 390–97 (1971); J.I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426, 430–31 (1964). In recent decades, however, the Court has retreated from this general remedial approach, narrowing the availability of implied rights of action by drawing distinctions among various remedies and legal interests.3×3. See, e.g., Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 66–74 (2001); Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 279–93 (2001). Last Term, in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc.,4×4. 135 S. Ct. 1378 (2015). the Court at once simplified and complicated the landscape — unifying5×5. A neutral phrase like “unification” does not fully capture the often divisive nature of the Court’s implied-rights-of-action jurisprudence and the value-laden debate over the direction of unification. With respect to equitable relief, Professor David Shapiro has noted that “arguments about [Ex parte Young] have become a proxy for a more important debate: To what extent, if any, should federal law (especially the Constitution) be available for use not only as a shield against state action but as a sword . . . ?” David L. Shapiro, Ex Parte Young and the Uses of History, 67 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 69, 94 (2011). the disparate treatment of statutory damages and affirmative injunctions while hinting at yet another exception for the award of negative relief.6×6. A plea for affirmative relief makes a demand for damages or specific performance of a duty. See John Harrison, Ex Parte Young, 60 Stan. L. Rev. 989, 1004–05 (2008). Negative relief, on the other hand, seeks to nullify a challenged action or law and makes no demand “other than to be let alone.” Id. at 1006. Though the Court claimed to rely exclusively on earlier decisions when resolving Armstrong, the outcome is difficult to explain as a straightforward application of precedent. The Court instead could have relied convincingly on common law reasoning that traces back to Justice Harlan’s concurrence in Bivens. And even though the Court eschewed this mode of analysis, the common law nature of the Court’s private-rights-of-action jurisprudence supports Armstrong’s attempt to unify the statutory context by ratcheting down the formerly permissive treatment of affirmative injunctions.
Medicaid is a federal–state program that subsidizes the states’ provision of medical care to low-income individuals.7×7. Medicaid Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396–1396v (2012). State participation in the program is voluntary, but states receiving federal funds must develop a state plan that complies with the terms of the Medicaid Act.8×8. Id. § 1396a. If the state does not act in accordance with the requirements of the Medicaid Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services may initiate a compliance action and withhold federal funds. Id. § 1396c. Among other requirements, § 30(A) of the Act requires that such plans contain procedures to ensure that reimbursement rates for health care providers are consistent with “quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers” in the geographic area.9×9. Id. § 1396a(a)(30)(A).
The State of Idaho administers a federally approved Medicaid plan, which includes residential habilitation services for individuals with developmental disabilities.10×10. Inclusion, Inc. v. Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d 960, 961 (D. Idaho 2011); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1396n(c). The residential habilitation program includes individually tailored support services, such as skills training, that are designed “to assist Medicaid participants in residing successfully” in their own homes rather than in an institution. Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d at 961. In 2005, Idaho’s legislature revised the methodology for determining reimbursement rates for habilitation service providers, requiring state officials to consider the actual costs incurred by providers.11×11. Idaho Code Ann. § 56-118(1)–(2) (West 2011). In 2009, after conducting various cost studies, state officials proposed that the applicable reimbursement rates be increased.12×12. Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d at 962. The proposed rates, however, were never implemented because the Idaho legislature did not appropriate the necessary funds.13×13. Id. Five providers of habilitation services (the “Providers”) filed suit in the District of Idaho against two officials responsible for administering the state’s Medicaid program, claiming that the prevailing reimbursement rates were too low to satisfy the conditions of § 30(A) and thus were preempted by the Act.14×14. See Complaint at 8–9, Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d 960 (No. 1:09-cv-00634). The Providers asked the court to issue an injunction ordering the state officials to increase the rates.15×15. Id. at 10.
The district court granted summary judgment for the Providers.16×16. Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d at 964. The court rejected the argument that the Providers lacked a valid cause of action, holding that Ninth Circuit precedent “clear[ly]” established that “providers have standing under the Supremacy Clause” to challenge a state law reducing reimbursement rates in violation of § 30(A).17×17. Id. (citing Indep. Living Ctr. of S. Cal., Inc. v. Shewry, 543 F.3d 1050, 1065 (9th Cir. 2008)). On the merits, Chief Judge Winmill concluded that the state’s continued use of the 2006 reimbursement rates violated § 30(A) because the rates did not incorporate “actual provider costs.”18×18. Id.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed by unpublished disposition.19×19. Exceptional Child Ctr., Inc. v. Armstrong, 567 F. App’x 496, 498 (9th Cir. 2014). Comprising the panel were Judge Tallman, Judge Bea, and District Judge Murphy, sitting by designation. Id. at 497. From the outset, the court maintained that the “Providers have an implied right of action under the Supremacy Clause” to enjoin the implementation of state legislation.20×20. Id. at 497. The panel acknowledged that four Justices in Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1204 (2012), “would have held otherwise,” id. at 1212 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting), but nonetheless considered itself bound by Supreme Court precedent recognizing such a right, Armstrong, 567 F. App’x at 497 (citing Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96 n.14 (1983)). Note that the Ninth Circuit overstated the holding in Shaw — at best, the Court’s recognition that federal courts have jurisdiction over suits to enjoin preempted state regulation, see Shaw, 463 U.S. at 96 n.14, merely suggested a private right of action under the Supremacy Clause. Turning to § 30(A), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the rates had impermissibly “remained in place for ‘purely budgetary reasons.’”21×21. Armstrong, 567 F. App’x at 498 (quoting Armstrong, 835 F. Supp. 2d at 963).
The Supreme Court reversed.22×22. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1388. Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia23×23. Justice Scalia was joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Breyer joined Parts I, II, and III of the opinion. held that the Supremacy Clause does not create a freestanding cause of action.24×24. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1383–84. Rather, the “ability to sue to enjoin unconstitutional actions by state and federal officers” is an equitable, “judge-made remedy” that can be foreclosed by Congress.25×25. Id. at 1384.
Relying on both text and history, Justice Scalia concluded that the Supremacy Clause establishes a mere “rule of decision.”26×26. Id. at 1383. Read simply, the clause “instructs courts what to do when state and federal law clash, but is silent regarding who may enforce federal laws in court.”27×27. Id. And read in context, “imposing mandatory private enforcement”28×28. Id. at 1384. of federal law would conflict with the enforcement regime established in Article I, which vests Congress with broad discretion to guide the implementation of its laws.29×29. Id. at 1383–84; see also U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 18 (giving Congress authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution [its] Powers”). Finally, the “conspicuous absence” of any mention in the preratification historical record that the clause created such significant private rights “militate[d] strongly against” the Providers’ position.30×30. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1383.
Having dispensed with a claim to relief under the Supremacy Clause, the Court identified the longstanding Ex parte Young31×31. 209 U.S. 123 (1908). right of action to enjoin unlawful executive acts as a “creation of courts of equity” that could be displaced by Congress through “express and implied statutory limitations.”32×32. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1384–85 (citing Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 74 (1996)). According to the Court, two features of § 30(A) implicitly foreclosed equitable relief. First, similar to the statute in Alexander v. Sandoval,33×33. 532 U.S. 275 (2001). the express provision of one method of enforcing the requirements of the Act — the Secretary’s withholding of Medicaid funds — indicated that Congress intended to foreclose other remedies.34×34. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1385; see also 42 U.S.C. § 1396c (2012). Second, the “judicially unadministrable nature of § 30(A)’s text”35×35. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1385. demonstrated, as in Gonzaga University v. Doe,36×36. 536 U.S. 273 (2002). that Congress “wanted to make the agency remedy that it provided exclusive.”37×37. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1385 (quoting Gonzaga, 536 U.S. at 292 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment)). Taken together, the Court held that the Act displaced an equitable remedy to enforce § 30(A).38×38. Id. Finally, writing for the plurality, Justice Scalia quickly dismissed the argument that a private right of action could be implied from the Medicaid Act itself. See id. at 1387 (plurality opinion) (citing Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 286–87).
Justice Breyer concurred in part and concurred in the judgment. In his view, the question of whether a statute allows for equitable relief could not be resolved by a “simple, fixed legal formula.”39×39. Id. at 1388 (Breyer, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). Nevertheless, expanding on the majority’s displacement analysis, Justice Breyer concluded from § 30(A)’s “nonjudicial” subject matter40×40. Id. Ratemaking determinations generally involve balancing a range of policy considerations. See id. and the Act’s robust administrative remedies that Congress intended to vest broad enforcement discretion in expert agencies.41×41. Id. at 1389–90. Indeed, previous judicial forays into the ratemaking arena “demonstrate[d] that administrative agencies are far better suited to this task than judges.”42×42. Id. at 1388. Furthermore, the Secretary’s statutory power to refuse federal funds and sue to compel compliance provided adequate remedies.43×43. Id. at 1389.
Justice Sotomayor dissented.44×44. Id. at 1390 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Justice Sotomayor was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Kagan. She agreed with the basic premises of the majority opinion: the Supremacy Clause does not provide an implied right of action, and equitable remedies to enjoin unlawful executive action may be foreclosed by Congress.45×45. Id. at 1391–92. But she parted from the majority along two lines. First, Justice Sotomayor criticized the majority for importing the displacement analysis previously applied to statutory damages into the context of equitable relief.46×46. Id. Unlike the majority’s approach — which elided the damages/equity distinction and mirrored the skeptical approach embraced in Sandoval and Gonzaga — she argued that precedent demanded a more rigorous showing that Congress has “affirmatively manifest[ed]” its intent to displace “the federal courts’ long-established practice of enjoining preempted state action.”47×47. Id. at 1392. The dissent noted that Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), was the only decision in which the Court “ha[s] ever discerned such congressional intent to foreclose equitable enforcement of a statutory mandate.” Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1392. Second, Justice Sotomayor reasoned that even under the majority’s own standard, equitable relief should be available: The Act’s administrative remedies were too narrow to foreclose an equitable cause of action.48×48. Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1393 (explaining that withholding federal funds from a state “will often be self-defeating” and the Act otherwise “provides no specific procedure that parties . . . may invoke in lieu of Ex parte Young”). And the ratemaking standard set out in § 30(A) was not “judicially unadministrable” — although the statutory text was “fairly broad,”49×49. Id. at 1394. the provision “employed language quite similar” to another part of the Act that had been deemed judicially enforceable.50×50. Id. at 1395. At the time § 30(A) was enacted, many federal courts of appeals had already found that the Boren Amendment, which required a state plan to provide reimbursement rates for disability services that are “adequate to meet the costs which must be incurred by efficiently and economically operated facilities,” was “enforceable pursuant to § 1983.” Id. at 1394–95; see also 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(13)(A) (1994) (amended 1997).
As its private-rights-of-action doctrine has evolved, the Court has drawn distinctions among different remedies and legal interests. By unifying51×51. Although the Armstrong majority does not explicitly announce such a purpose, the opinion can be read as a unification project. the treatment of statutory damages and affirmative injunctions while suggesting a more permissive approach for negative relief, Armstrong appears to trade one distinction for another. Viewed through the lens of precedent and statutory interpretation, this outcome is difficult to justify. But as a matter of federal common lawmaking, Armstrong comports with a method of judicial reasoning that traces back to Justice Harlan’s concurrence in Bivens. Even though the Court did not adopt this common law methodology, Justice Harlan’s mode of analysis helps explain Armstrong’s attempt to retreat from the lenient approach for statutory affirmative injunctions.
First, a sketch of the doctrinal landscape is necessary to ground the analysis. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the Court’s methodology was flexible in finding implied causes of action.52×52. See Cort v. Ash, 422 U.S. 66, 80–85 (1975); J.I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426, 433 (1964). In recent decades, however, the Court has begun to constrict the availability of private rights of action by bifurcating its treatment of damages and injunctions. In suits for damages under federal statutes and the Constitution, the Court has applied a skeptical approach, requiring a “clear and unambiguous” statement of congressional intent before finding a right of action.53×53. See Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 290 (2002); accord Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286–87 (2001). The inquiry for implying a damages remedy for constitutional violations is slightly different. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 396–97 (1971) (considering whether there are “special factors counselling hesitation” before awarding damages, id. at 396, or whether Congress has specified an alternative, “equally effective” mechanism for relief, id. at 397). Yet the Court’s Bivens jurisprudence demonstrates the same skeptical approach to inferring a right of action for damages. Indeed, the “special factors” analysis often incorporates Gonzaga’s concern for judicially unadminstrable standards, see Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U.S. 537, 555 (2007), and the “equally effective remedy” prong resembles Sandoval’s deference to alternative administrative remedies, see Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 74 (2001). Yet in suits for equitable relief, the approach has remained broad and permissive, with the Court almost taking for granted the availability of injunctions for violations of specific constitutional provisions.54×54. See, e.g., Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310, 372 (2010); Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 349 U.S. 294, 301 (1955); Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 589 (1952); see also Douglas Laycock, The Death of the Irreparable Injury Rule 3–7, 41–42, 196, 223 (1991) (describing the prevalence of injunctive remedies in many areas of public law litigation, including suits challenging school segregation and legislative malapportionment). To similar effect, Ex parte Young was read by many,55×55. See Shapiro, supra note 5, at 74. including at times the Court,56×56. See, e.g., Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart, 131 S. Ct. 1632, 1639 (2011); Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96 n.14 (1983). to authorize any injunctive relief against state officials for prospective violations of federal law and the enforcement of preempted state laws.
Armstrong chips away at the bifurcation between damages and injunctions, but introduces a new distinction between those equitable causes of action that may implicitly be displaced by Congress and others that require more explicit evidence of congressional intent. Suits like Armstrong seeking affirmative injunctive relief against the government may now be foreclosed pursuant to the same approach applied in the statutory damages context57×57. See Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1385. — that is, upon finding the provision of alternate remedies or judicially unadministrable text.58×58. See Gonzaga, 536 U.S. at 292 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment); Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 290. But the majority, by not calling the Court’s previous reading of Ex parte Young into question,59×59. See Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1384. Five members of the Court, and four members of the Armstrong majority, have asserted that Ex parte Young authorizes merely negative, antisuit injunctions. See Douglas v. Indep. Living Ctr. of S. Cal., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1204, 1213 (2012) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (concluding that Ex parte Young provides for “the pre-emptive assertion in equity of a defense that would otherwise have been available in the State’s enforcement proceedings at law” (quoting Stewart, 131 S. Ct. at 1642 (Kennedy, J., concurring))). Professor John Harrison offers an identical reading of the case. See Harrison, supra note 6, at 990. suggests that the displacement of negative injunctions demands a more robust showing of congressional intent. This affirmative-/negative-injunction distinction comports with the historically grounded view that “[a]nti-suit injunctions have been a staple of equity for centuries,”60×60. Harrison, supra note 6, at 990. and the doctrinal concern that it is unclear whether negative injunctions are even amenable to the displacement inquiries of Sandoval and Gonzaga.61×61. Take Ex parte Young, for instance. There, the railroads did not seek to privately enforce a statute; they aimed to invalidate it on constitutional grounds. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 131 (1908). Given the negative relief sought, it is not clear how (1) Congress could have specified an alternative enforcement mechanism, see Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 290, or (2) the judicially unadministrable nature of a provision’s text would immunize it from constitutional challenge, see Gonzaga, 536 U.S. at 292 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment). At the same time, while Armstrong hints at this distinction in the statutory realm, it does not explicitly engage with the constitutional context. The Providers sought an affirmative injunction under a statute; apart from the rejected Supremacy Clause interest, their lawsuit did not implicate constitutional provisions.62×62. See Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1382. Therefore, although the majority lumped all “unlawful executive action” together and suggested that the same affirmative-/negative-injunction distinction applies to constitutional cases,63×63. See id. at 1385. it is not clear what showing must be made before foreclosing equitable remedies to enforce constitutional provisions. The table below summarizes the post-Armstrong landscape:
|Remedy||Damages||Rarely implied (e.g., Gonzaga; Sandoval)||Rarely implied (e.g., Bivens; Malesko)|
|Lower bar for displacement (e.g., Armstrong)||Not expressly considered (e.g., Brown)||Negative |
|Higher bar for displacement (e.g., Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Public Service Commission of Maryland;64×64. 535 U.S. 635 (2002). Shaw)||Not expressly considered (e.g., Citizens United; Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB65×65. 130 S. Ct. 3138 (2010). )|
This table, reflecting an ad hoc, “crazy-quilt pattern of statutory, constitutional, and pragmatic considerations,”66×66. Henry P. Monaghan, The Supreme Court, 1974 Term — Foreword: Constitutional Common Law, 89 Harv. L. Rev. 1, 12 (1975) (footnotes omitted). suggests a simple explanation: implied rights of action are all federal common law.67×67. Courts and scholars generally characterize implied rights of action as judge-made common law. See, e.g., J.I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426, 433 (1964); Monaghan, supra note 66, at 24. Justice Harlan’s concurrence in Bivens provides the archetypal model for common law judicial reasoning in the implied-rights-of-action landscape. The common law judge is guided as much by pragmatism as by precedent, continually searching for the best rule to govern a particular realm of law.68×68. See, e.g., Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 507 (2008) (noting that when the Court sits “in the position of a common law court,” its decisions often “smack m[ore] of policy and [less] of principle”). As such, in resolving the question of inferring a damages remedy for constitutional violations, Justice Harlan surveyed the Court’s implied-rights-of-action jurisprudence to determine which legal rule made sense in terms of coherence, uniformity, and institutional competency.69×69. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 407 (1971) (Harlan, J., concurring in the judgment) (concluding that the “range of policy considerations” at his disposal was “at least as broad as . . . those a legislature would consider”). Similar concerns about coherence, uniformity, and institutional competence run throughout the Court’s federal common law jurisprudence. See United States v. Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. 715, 727–29 (1979); Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 410 (1964). In his view, a refusal to recognize a damages action for constitutional violations would create two discontinuities in the doctrine. First, given the permissive approach toward inferring statutory remedies at the time,70×70. Bivens, 403 U.S. at 402 (Harlan, J., concurring in the judgment) (citing Borak, 377 U.S. 426). it would have been anomalous to apply a more stringent test for constitutional remedies, which presumably rank at least as high “on a scale of social values.”71×71. Id. at 410. Second, considering the traditional authority to issue equitable injunctions, it would be incongruous to “divest federal courts” of the power to grant a less intrusive remedy at law.72×72. Id. at 404. Justice Harlan therefore ratcheted up a damages remedy for constitutional violations in the interest of unifying the doctrine across legal interests and remedies.
The Court, however, has largely73×73. Note, however, that Justice Scalia once made a similar call for unifying the doctrine. See Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 75 (2001) (Scalia, J., concurring). abandoned Justice Harlan’s unfettered style of analysis. Although Armstrong is a common law decision in that its subject matter is federal common law — reconceiving the equitable cause of action as a “judge-made remedy” that can be displaced by Congress74×74. See Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1384. — it did not utilize the common law methodology that was the hallmark of previous opinions in this area. Justice Scalia grounded his analysis in a narrow, historically based interpretation of Ex parte Young and its key precedent.75×75. See id. at 1383–84. Justice Sotomayor, meanwhile, adopted a static view of the doctrine: because prior cases assumed the availability of injunctive remedies to enforce a federal statute, the displacement analysis for statutory rights of action could not be transferred to a “background equitable principle.”76×76. See id. at 1392 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Neither opinion grappled with what makes sense for the doctrine.
Nonetheless, the common law methodology in Bivens is instructive and provides one lens through which to evaluate both Armstrong and future cases.77×77. Even though the Court has mostly rejected policy-based federal common lawmaking, the Court’s private-rights-of-action jurisprudence can still be assessed in terms of coherence, uniformity, and institutional competency. Justice Harlan’s reasoning supports the Armstrong Court’s attempt to unify — albeit in the opposite direction — the treatment of damages and injunctions in the statutory realm. Four decades later, the calculus with respect to the Court’s institutional competence has changed: the expansive authority to imply statutory remedies upon which Justice Harlan based his a fortiori argument is now quite constricted.78×78. See, e.g., Malesko, 534 U.S. at 75 (Scalia, J., concurring) (“Bivens is a relic of the heady days in which this Court assumed common-law powers to create causes of action . . . .”). A permissive approach to injunctions thus gives rise to two new aberrations in the present doctrine. Indeed, considering that many injunctive remedies are more intrusive than damages,79×79. The Court has repeatedly emphasized the intrusiveness of certain “structural injunctions” in the standing context. See, e.g., Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 761 (1984) (refusing to grant standing for plaintiffs who sought an injunction to “restructur[e] . . . the apparatus established by the Executive Branch to fulfill its legal duties”); O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 500 (1974) (same). it is anomalous to apply a more permissive test to the more extraordinary remedy.80×80. Such a juxtaposition flips the usual interplay between law and equity where equitable remedies are available only when remedies at law are inadequate. See, e.g., O’Shea, 414 U.S. at 499. Moreover, if the Court now refuses to infer a damages remedy — the most basic relief at law — to vindicate countermajoritarian constitutional interests,81×81. See Malesko, 534 U.S. at 74; Schweiker v. Chilicky, 487 U.S. 412, 429 (1988). then it would be strange to adopt a more permissive approach toward any remedy in the statutory context, where the judiciary risks intruding on the legislative function of majoritarian policymaking.82×82. See Cannon v. Univ. of Chi., 441 U.S. 677, 746 (1979) (Powell, J., dissenting) (“By creating a private action, a court of limited jurisdiction necessarily extends its authority to embrace a dispute Congress has not assigned it to resolve.”). To eliminate these inconsistencies from the doctrine, the Court justifiably ratcheted down the permissive approach to injunctions.
And yet, by suggesting a carve-out whereby negative injunctions may be implied under a permissive standard, the Court did not perfectly unify across remedies. The next question facing the Court, then, is whether its ostensible unification project should extend to negative injunctions. Armstrong might be viewed in two different respects. On the one hand, the recent trend has been toward the constricting of available relief. While the Court previously inferred a right of action for damages, affirmative injunctions, and negative injunctions with relative unity, the Sandoval and Gonzaga Courts introduced a stricter inquiry for damages, and now the Armstrong Court has arguably imported the same skeptical approach into the realm of affirmative relief. Viewed through the lens of history, Armstrong might be understood as one link in a long chain rather than a paradigm shift in itself.
On the other hand, there are reasons to suspect that the bifurcation between affirmative and negative relief is a more permanent fixture in the private-rights-of-action landscape. First, Justice Harlan’s common law methodology supports such a distinction. The primary anomaly in the present doctrine arose from the permissive treatment of a more intrusive remedy, but negative injunctions do not direct any affirmative act of the state. Instead, they simply seek to “enforce a conclusion of invalidity, making a purported law into a non-law.”83×83. See Harrison, supra note 6, at 1005; see also id. at 1004–06. Second, a request for negative relief may not be amenable to the stricter standard applied to damages — indeed, when a litigant seeks to invalidate rather than enforce a statute, Sandoval’s inquiry as to whether Congress has provided an alternative means for enforcing the statute84×84. See Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 290 (2001). makes little sense. Finally, several members of the Court have acknowledged that cases involving negative relief “present quite different questions.”85×85. Douglas v. Indep. Living Ctr. of S. Cal., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1204, 1213 (2012) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting). Plaintiffs asserting a principle of invalidity seek to vindicate the basic interest “to be let alone,”86×86. See Harrison, supra note 6, at 1006. whereas parties requesting an affirmative injunction aim to compel the state to act for their benefit.87×87. Indeed, objects of regulation traditionally receive greater solicitude from the Court than beneficiaries of regulation. See, e.g., Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561–62 (1992). As such, one might infer that the skeptical inquiry for statutory damages is “not transferable to the [negative injunction] context.”88×88. See Armstrong, 135 S. Ct. at 1392 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Justice Sotomayor argued that Sandoval’s skeptical inquiry is not transferable to the entire “Ex parte Young context,” see id., and cited a string of cases to demonstrate that the Providers’ request for affirmative relief “falls comfortably” within the Ex parte Young doctrine, id. at 1391. All of those decisions, however, involved pleas for negative relief. See id. (citing, among others, Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85 (1983); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 436 (1819)).
At bottom, interpretations of Armstrong and its ostensible unification project may turn on one’s ideological priors. As Professor David Shapiro recognizes, “arguments about [Ex parte Young] have become a proxy for” debates about the extent to which the Constitution should “be available for use not only as a shield against [invalid] state action but [also] as a sword” with which to seek affirmative relief.89×89. Shapiro, supra note 5, at 94. Armstrong appears to be the latest round of the debate.