I got to thinking on this when reading this thread What happens if administration doesn't meet the deadline to reunify families?

The answer talks about contempt and the possibility of sanctions / jail.

Is there a source that specifically defines how the judicial branch in the United States can enforce its powers.

For example, the executive branch controls law enforcement and the military. That would seem to indicate that if desired the executive branch can do what it wants and only can only be held to account by an uprising of the people via voting and if that fails then other measures.

In an extreme case lets pose this question. Executive defies court orders that were validated up to the supreme court. Legislative branch impeaches the president. The executive branch remains loyal to the president and refuses to remove him from office.

What happens next?

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    Traditionally, a civil war. In the absence of an effective opposition, a monarchy
    – Caleth
    Jul 9, 2018 at 17:45
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    Besides "blood in the streets", how can we answer the question "what happens if large portions of the state decide to ignore the laws?"
    – Deolater
    Jul 9, 2018 at 17:46
  • For the most part, judicial orders are effective to the extent that they are constitutional, and executive officers are sworn to uphold the constitution. But there have been some prominent exceptions. The supreme court therefore treads carefully at times, to avoid precipitating unnecessary constitutional crisis. Being unable to do anything in the face of executive branch defying its order would not help anything. But as to your actual question "what happens next," the answer can only be speculation.
    – phoog
    Jul 9, 2018 at 18:06
  • The court upholds the law...not enforces it.
    – user1530
    Jul 10, 2018 at 0:11
  • It is sort of a special case today, see my answer below. As the framers originally conceived it, the states had a much bigger role in enforcing the law, because the federal government (and federal law) was much smaller. Dec 8, 2018 at 2:45

5 Answers 5


Legal Authority

The All Writs Act is part of the statutory authorization for the civil contempt power as is 28 U.S.C. § 1826 (regarding compelling testimony from recalcitrant witnesses) and governing enforcement of court orders in general.

Criminal contempt proceedings are governed by 18 U.S.C. §§ 401-402. See, e.g., here.

But, the civil contempt process is not spelled out in detail in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (as it is in most state courts), and is largely a result of the inherent powers of the judicial branch in the federal system as interpreted in light of English tradition prior to the Declaration of Independence and federal court case law.

Judges also have great power to authorize the seizure of assets to satisfy money judgments in a process largely independent of the President.

Federal Judges Are Not To Be Underestimated

It also bears making an observation about federal judges.

A federal judge unlike a judge in almost every other country in the world even at the highest level, is an extremely well politically connected political appointee who secured his or her position usually only after having had a very successful career as a lawyer, often followed by an equally successful career as a state court judge. They are "highly effective people" who know not just the written law but the unwritten rules of how the world works who are often not afraid to use that knowledge. They routinely adjudicate political struggles between powerful factions. They do not have the slightest doubts about their own personal authority. They have had far more time to learn the ropes and develop experience than any elected or politically appointed person in the executive branch.

Collectively, federal judges are jealous of the powers of the judiciary as a whole and are incredibly savvy and competent. Their command of power play tactics in U.S. politics, and their collective intelligence rivals or exceeds that of the most competent members of Congress, senior executive branch officials, or military officers. Their only real rivals in terms of raw human capital in the world are the senior public law lawyers in the French Council of State.

They are not to be underestimated.

How Easy Is It To Control The Executive Branch?

For example, the executive branch controls law enforcement and the military. That would seem to indicate that if desired the executive branch can do what it wants and only can only be held to account by an uprising of the people via voting and if that fails then other measures.

In an extreme case lets pose this question. Executive defies court orders that were validated up to the supreme court. Legislative branch impeaches the president. The executive branch remains loyal to the president and refuses to remove him from office.

The propositions in bold are not as obvious as they seem.

The United States does not have a unified executive branch, due both to federalism and the way that the executive branch at the federal level is structured.

Also, the military's duty to obey the commander in chief is limited by each soldier's duty to disobey an unlawful order, a conflict about which active duty military personnel in the U.S. military receive considerable indoctrination.

In the case of an impeachment, there is also a clearly recognized successor who has "the wind at his back" due to his legitimacy in organizing support relative to the President and the support of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate and a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives who are extremely well connected politically as a collective group.

The Divided Executive

Of the roughly 18 million government employees in the United States, only 1 million or so a civilian non-postal service employees. About 15 million are state and local government employees who don't report to the President. About 1.5 million are active duty military. The postal service, which makes up on the order of half a million employees (it was twice that when I was a kid) is not in the direct chain of command from the President who appoints people to a Board of Directors who appoint a CEO who runs the USPS.

Something like 20% of the other million civilian non-postal employees in the federal government are also in independent agencies who aren't subject to the direct line authority in a chain of command from the President.

The President also doesn't have direct authority to fire federal employees who are members of the civil service system (most of whom are also unionized and inclined by nature to resist suspicious action of the President). Pretty much, the President can only fire political appointees (of which the are roughly 5,000 in round numbers), without going through the civil service system. Ignoring the President is less likely to get you fired by the civil service system than ignoring a U.S. Supreme Court order. A lot of federal government civil service employees are also ultimately quietly idealists who when push comes to shove may not follow a clearly illegal Presidential directive as determined by the federal courts.

The Difficulty Of Uniting The Military To Defy The Courts

The military's support of the President, even though it is in the President's direct line of command and control, isn't so reliable either.

If you defy the President and his faction wins, you could be executed in a court-martial. If you defy the President and his faction loses, you could be indicted for committing a crime by obeying an unlawful order, or even treason, and face death or a long term of imprisonment following a trial in a civilian criminal court or a court-martial of the winning faction. The side the people take depends to a great extent on how consistently they think that one side or the other is to win, and the smart move, if you can manage it, is to avoid taking any action that clearly shows which faction you sided with in the struggle in a passive-aggressive fashion.

The Department of Defense and Coast Guard are so sprawling that organizing defiance to federal court orders, even when the encouragement of the President as commander in chief, is a non-trivial matter. There are hundreds of generals and admirals who have to fall in line for that to happen.

The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force are ill suited to holding domestic territory. The U.S. Army is close to the lowest number of soldiers it has had since before World War II, and the U.S. Army has a larger share of soldiers who are not "front line" riflemen (e.g. diesel mechanics, computer operators, medics) than at any other time in its history. And, of course, lots of military personnel at any given time are abroad or afloat where they wouldn't play a role in the power struggle.

In order to get the mass of soldiers needed to hold the country by force in defiance of judicial orders, you need to mobilize the Army and Marine reserves and to activate the Army National Guard who may refuse to do so if their state Governor concludes that the President's mobilization order is an unlawful order designed to circumvent a court ruling.

Unless the President can almost unanimously convince all of the myriad components of the military and law enforcement that his defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court or a Congressional impeachment is proper, he faces the prospects of a bloody military struggle to retain control.

In a great many countries less stable than the United States politically, in a crisis of legitimacy and control, some factions of law enforcement and the military remain loyal to the usurper and others do not and they go to war with each other.

For example, this happened in the latest coup attempt in Turkey.


So, any President who wants to attempt to defy the Courts needs to have the overwhelming near unanimous support of the people with guns and the people whose support is needed to rule at both the federal and state and local level, which is not an easy thing to manage.


Worcester v. Georgia led to the apocryphal quote by Andrew Jackson "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"

Basically SCOTUS does not have enforcement authority, beyond contempt of court, if it's orders are not followed. As with Contempt of Congress, the President is still in control of enforcement authorities of contempt charges. It rarely happens that POTUS ignores the situation, but in the above case, the decision was not enforced by the president, who did have feelings to the effect of that quote. Even though Worcester recognized the sovereignty of the Native American Tribes as a foreign nation, it did not stop Jackson from enacting the Trail of Tears.

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    It is worth noting that Andrew Jackson predated the federal civil service system and independent agencies, when almost everyone in the federal government was a political appointee who could be fired by the President at will. He also presided at a time when the whole of the federal government was less professional, had a smaller purse and managed a smaller bureaucracy. Federal courts then were few (the Court of Appeals had not yet been invented) and handled a smaller share of the overall volume of court cases in the U.S. than they do today.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 10, 2018 at 0:31
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    Also in Jackson's day the duty of soldiers to disobey an unlawful order was not well established.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 10, 2018 at 1:04

The United States Marshals are the enforcement arm of the Judiciary Branch. This was originally a judiciary branch function; each U.S. District court hired and administered its own marshals independently. That has changed, but U.S. Marshalls are still tasked with the job of enforcing federal court orders.


Marshals are organizationally unique in the law enforcement community. Wikipedia has some errors in details, so I'll quote directly from Marshals Service records.

Established: The position of U.S. Marshal was established by Section 27 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 87), September 24, 1789, authorizing the appointment of one Marshal for each Federal judicial district. The Executive Office for United States Marshals (EOUSM) was the first organization to supervise U.S. Marshals nationwide. EOUSM was established, effective December 17, 1956, by announcement of Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers, November 30, 1956. It functioned under the Office of the Deputy Attorney General until November 28, 1967, when it was transferred to the Administrative Division by DOJ Order 386-67, same date. It continued in that division until May 12, 1969, when it was superseded by the Office of the Director, United States Marshals Service. The United States Marshals Service was established in the Department of Justice by DOJ Order 415-69, May 12, 1969. USMS records include those of the Office of the Director, USMS, and those of USMS district and subdistrict offices located in the various Federal judicial districts.

Functions: Each U.S. Marshal is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The duties of each U.S. Marshal and, by delegation, of each deputy U.S. Marshal, include protecting the Federal court(s) in their judicial district, together with court officials and trial participants; investigating and apprehending fugitives from Federal justice; ensuring the safety of endangered Government witnesses; maintaining custody of, and transporting, Federal prisoners; executing court orders and arrest warrants; managing, and disposing of, property forfeited to the Government by drug traffickers and other criminals; and responding to such emergency situations as civil disturbances and terrorist incidents.

Further information from the federal judicial center concludes:

During the twentieth century, and particularly after the creation of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in 1939, the marshals' administrative responsibilities within the courts decreased while their role as law enforcement officers expanded. The marshals and their deputies continue to provide protection to judges, witnesses, and jurors, and they continue to execute the lawful orders of the federal government in the judicial districts.

Further Reading:

Calhoun, Frederick S. United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989 . New York: Penguin Books, 1991.


The specific case you cite would be a Constitutional Crisis of unprecedented magnitude. It is notable that "executive branch" includes a wide variety of officials. If the President were impeached and convicted, hypothetically the Secret Service and the other various organizations would be reporting to the former VP. If they remain loyal instead to the former President, there would be little that any other branch could do. Hypothetically they could refuse to pass laws or rule on law's that the President signed, but this would all be entirely uncharted territory.


The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

--Federalist #78

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