Mr. President, You’re in Contempt

Rory Cooper /

Anyone who has ever watched Law & Order knows that someone is held in contempt of court when they egregiously disrespect the role of the court and the rule of law. Holding someone in contempt is a powerful sanction in a judge’s arsenal to redress an intentional disregard for the law and the courts.

So it is no small matter when yesterday Federal District Court Judge Martin Feldman held the Obama Interior Department in contempt of court for dismissively ignoring his ruling to cease the job-killing drilling moratorium imposed by President Obama last year.

Feldman wrote: “Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the reimposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium and in light of the national importance of this case, provide this Court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt of this Court’s preliminary injunction order.”

President Obama first ordered the halt of offshore drilling in response to the BP oil spill in April 2010. While some reasonable observers concluded that a temporary stoppage was necessary to assess the status of safe drilling operations in the Gulf, nearly nobody has supported the permanent moratorium the Obama administration has since enforced.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) publicly testified against the administration’s needless moratorium, and even the president’s hand-picked drilling commission opposed it. Former EPA Chief and Commission Co-Chair William Reilly said: “If there’s a single point of consensus as we’ve been down here, it’s that the moratorium is doing very significant economic damage to this area.”

In fact, Obama’s moratorium isn’t merely hurting a local economy, but the national economy of the United States. Gas prices are rising, jobs are being lost, service industries are suffering and the government is losing much-needed royalty revenue as a result of this capricious act.

It was with this evidence of unnecessary economic calamity that the moratorium’s lawfulness was initially challenged in court. In June 2010, Judge Feldman ordered the administration to not enforce the moratorium, saying: “[Defendants] are hereby immediately prohibited from enforcing the Moratorium, entitled ‘Suspension of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Drilling of New Deepwater Wells,’ dated May 28, 2010…”

The Obama administration’s response was to appeal the ruling and issue a second moratorium, nearly identical to the first, with the same outcome of unnecessarily impeding domestic oil drilling.

As Judge Feldman said in yesterday’s ruling: “The second moratorium disabled precisely the same rigs and deepwater drilling rigs and activities in the Gulf of Mexico as did the first one.”

The government’s appeal was also unsuccessful, with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting a stay of the lower court’s decision, or as Appeals Court Judge Jerry E. Smith said: “We give deference, as you should, to what that court has done.”

Since then, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama announced they were “lifting” the second moratorium, but then proceeded to not change their behavior, issuing almost no new drilling permits and creating a “de facto” moratorium. While this showed contempt for the American economy and taxpayer, it also showed a serious contempt for the court’s rulings.

Again, as Judge Feldman noted in his ruling: “The plaintiffs also stress that the government did not simply reimpose a blanket moratorium; rather, each step the government took following the Court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance: the government failed to seek a remand; it continually reaffirmed its intention and resolve to restore the moratorium; it even notified operators that though a preliminary injunction had issued, they could quickly expect a new moratorium.”

Defiantly ignoring binding judicial decisions seems to have become a matter of habit for this White House. This past week, after a second court ruled Obamacare unconstitutional in a case binding in at least the 26 states that are parties to the litigation, The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior official as saying that the Obama Administration has no intention of halting implementation of the law.

As a former law professor, there is simply no excuse for President Obama’s open contempt for directly binding judicial rulings. Judge Feldman, in his original injunction said the Obama Administration “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in issuing the moratorium.” Our economy can’t suffer much more of the president’s arbitrary and capricious behavior, and neither can the courts.