Petitions for a writ of mandamus, sometimes just called a “mandamus” for short, are rarely granted motions. Usually, their purpose and scope encompasses reporting some form of misconduct by a US District Court judge, such as an egregious and unnecessary delay in a proceeding, to the Court of Appeals above the US District Court judge in the hopes that the superior judges’ review will result in an order from the superior court to the lower court to alter its current course of action, or inaction, as it were.
Petitions for a writ of mandamus are considered drastic and extraordinary remedies, and a person filing such a petition with the Court of Appeals to report specific conduct of the lower court must usually make several showings before such a petition may be granted. These usually include establishing that the District Court judge has jurisdiction to perform the requested duty, and — in the case of expeditious treatment following delays between briefing/hearing and ruling — such a petitioner must establish a “clear and indisputable right to expeditious treatment of his  motion, and that no other adequate remedy is available.” In re Hicks, 118 F. App’x 778, 778 (4th Cir. 2005)(citing Allied Chem. v. Daiflon, Inc., 448 U.S. 33, 35 (1980); see also United States v. Shalhoub, 855 F.3d 1255, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2017); Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Court for D.C., 542 U.S. 367, 380 (2004).
When a significant delay in a habeas proceeding challenging the legality of a petitioner’s incarceration is in question, courts have considered it a particularly serious matter. In fact, the Tenth Circuit emphasizes that “‘[T]he writ of habeas corpus, challenging detention, is reduced to a sham if the trial courts do not act within a reasonable time.’” United States v. Dago, 441 F.3d 1238, 1248 (10th Cir. 2006)(quoting Smith v. Sec. of the N.M. Dept. of Corrs., 50 F.3d 801, 821 n.5 (10th Cir. 1995)). Because of this, courts generally recognize, “the district court must give priority to habeas corpus cases over other civil cases.” In re Hicks, 118 F. App’x 778, 778 (4th Cir. 2005), and “a writ of mandamus may be warranted where undue delay is tantamount to a failure to exercise its jurisdiction.” In re Blyden, 626 F. App’x 368, 370 (3d Cir. 2015)(citing Madden v. Myers, 102 F.2d 74, 79 (3d Cir. 1996)).
Generally, courts have found that even a 12-to-14-month delay, or longer, in a habeas proceeding, is such an undue delay. See In re Blyden, 626 F. App’x 368, 370 (3d Cir. 2015); Johnson v. Rogers, 917 F.2d 1283, 1285 (10th Cir. 1990); Jones v. Shell, 572 F.2d 1278, 1280 (8th Cir. 1978).
When filing a petition for a writ of mandamus, a petitioner must send the original to the applicable Court of Appeals, a copy to the opposing party (such as a US Attorney in a criminal case), and to the judge presiding over the case at issue. Importantly, the copy of the petition served on the judge is served in chambers, not through the court clerk. Petitioners are required to declare under penalty of perjury that they have served the judge in question in chambers before the Court of Appeals will consider the issue.
There are upside and downsides of filing mandamus petitions. Usually, they result in a speedy action from the judge, but the action is not always a favorable one. As with any escalation of problems in the non-court world, bosses don’t like it when you report their alleged misconduct to their bosses. Same with the courts. When you report the actions or delays of the lower court to its superior courts, it ruffles the feathers of the lower court. This doesn’t always result in an unfavorable ruling, but petitions for a writ of mandamus should really only be used when the risk of the lower court’s ire is worth it.
Ironically, because the filing of a mandamus petition usually results in some action from the lower court, the Court of Appeals is almost always free to deny the mandamus motion in front of them as moot because — at least in cases of delays — the delay has been broken. Certainly, Circuit Courts prefer to deny mandamus relief in favor of the lower court acting “of its own volition” after the motion is filed. As such, the motion does spurn action despite the fact that the Court of Appeals denies it as moot. The goal, usually, is action from the lower court, and action is often what it results in.
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