In this interview with NewsMax, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked what he would do to preserve traditional marriage if the Supreme Court were to recognize marriage equality nationwide. He said this:

First of all, we have to understand how the Constitution works, the president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch. So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibly to carry it out. It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law. And that’s something we need to talk about.

Now it's possible that Carson was trying to say that if the Supreme Court were to "legislate from the bench" and make an unconstitutional order, then the President would have no obligation to execute it.

But assuming he meant all judicial orders, lawful or otherwise, my question is, what is the executive branch's responsibility in executing judicial orders? I've heard of the (likely apocryphal) story of Andrew Jackson hearing a Supreme Court order forbidding him from displacing Native Americans from their land, and responding with the suggestion that if the Chief Justice passed the order, then he can enforce it himself. But what does case law say about whether the President can neglect to enforce a lawful order from a Court?

  • In what sense can the SCOTUS make an unconstitutional order? The Constitution means what they say it means
    – DJohnM
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 1:15
  • There isn't such a thing as judicial law. The Constitution requires that the President faithfully execute the law. If he failed to follow a judicial order, only congress could remove him.
    – user1873
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 1:22
  • @User58220 It's hard to tell sarcasm on the Internet, but in case you're sincerely asking a question, there are some people who think that the original intent of the constitution is what is legally binding on the populace, regardless of what the courts rule, and there are others who think that it is the Constitution as it is interpreted by courts is what has to be followed. For instance, if the Supreme Court rules that the estate tax is constitutional, but you believed it was unconstitutional, that doesn't mean you can avoid paying the estate tax scot-free. Commented May 7, 2015 at 1:22
  • @user1873 That's what I want to know: is there any case law that says that it's illegal/unconstitutional for the executive branch to fail to follow a judicial order? Commented May 7, 2015 at 1:24
  • 2
    Congress can impeach him for that reason, or no reason at all.
    – user1873
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 13:39

1 Answer 1


There are two extremes a president can go to when a federal court issues a ruling. The first is Brown v Board of Ed's enforcement in Little Rock--Eisenhower basically invaded Arkansas to enforce that ruling.

In another school desegregation case from a federal court, the Boston busing crisis, the president didn't do anything whatsoever, despite the fact that this was a fairly similar situation to the Little Rock one. It mostly just turns on what the president decides to do: Eisenhower wanted desegregation, Nixon didn't want to get involved and let enforcement of the ruling be handled by local law enforcement. Neither got impeached.

(Well Nixon did, but that was unrelated)

  • Well, I want to know about the legality. Is it legal for a President to not follow a court order? Commented May 9, 2015 at 17:13
  • 1
    It hasn't been addressed, I'm fairly sure, by the Supreme Court. So pure legality is impossible to say and depends on constitutional interpretation. Congress and the American public seem to think lack of enforcement is perfectly legal though, which does count for quite a bit.
    – Adonalsium
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 17:17
  • Well, presumably the President's responsibilities would be the same as other executive branch officials. Is there any case law about the executive branch in general having to enforce court orders? Commented May 9, 2015 at 17:27
  • Executive branch officials are legally obligated to do what the president tells them, so I don't think the situations would be valid precedent. Agencies like the CIA and NSA will ignore court orders if the president tells them to (or, rather, if the president doesn't tell them not to). But those cases are the SCOTUS ordering the agencies to do things, not the agencies enforcing orders.
    – Adonalsium
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 18:04
  • 1
    Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him.
    – Charles
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 20:36

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