After judges issue final orders and judgments, losing defendants often ask courts to make a determination that may seem to be a mere procedural technicality, but is, instead, a new battleground for injunctive litigation. These judges are deciding whether to grant a stay pending appeal—whether to prevent the enforcement of a court order or judgment until a court has decided the appeal. Because litigating and deciding an appeal can take years and because the issues at the heart of much of civil injunctive litigation are extremely time-sensitive, determining whether to grant or deny a stay is a momentous decision. By deciding requests for stays pending appeal, federal judges have decided if Texas could enforce health and safety regulations, or if clinics could provide abortions in the state; if 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin would be able to vote, or if the state could enforce its duly-enacted provisions to regulate elections and prevent voter fraud; if states could determine requirements for marriage, or if samesex couples could marry; if the President could enforce an Executive Order regarding national security, or if Muslims could enter the country regardless of religion; and, arguably, if the forty-third US President would be Al Gore or George W. Bush.
The standard for stay determinations ostensibly includes four factors: (1) the likelihood of success on appeal; (2) the likelihood of irreparable harm pending appeal; (3) the balance of the hardships; and (4) the public interest. However, there is more idiosyncrasy than standard because courts vary so widely regarding what constitutes each prong and the manner in which courts should weigh each prong, if at all. Compounding the absence of a uniform stays standard, courts frequently give no reasoning or opinion for stay determinations. With life changing (and potentially world-changing) issues on the line pending appeal, stays are a nearly law-free zone. The immense consequences of stay determinations, due to lengthy appeals and the time-bound nature of the underlying injunctions or orders, mean that courts need to make an effort to get stay decisions right.
The author argues that the purpose of a stay pending appeal is to protect a meaningful opportunity to appeal where guaranteed. The Article suggests different standards for stays, turning on whether review is guaranteed or discretionary. The author also asserts that courts should write reasoned opinions for stay decisions.