Mandamus lawsuits can be effective due to a variety of factors, including favorable case law and statutes. Yet, they work for another reason that isn’t necessarily captured in legal textbooks. Essentially, these lawsuits impose a cost on the government for doing nothing. In normal circumstances without a lawsuit, government agencies can lack motivation to decide your case in a reasonable amount of time. Unlike a typical business where poor service can drive customers elsewhere, government agencies understand they have a captive audience. This is one reason (not the only one) why we continue to see ever-increasing processing times, even in instances where Congress specifies how long a case should take to process, such as removal of conditions petitions.
Organizations and individuals respond to incentives. To prompt the government into action, one strategy is to make inaction more costly than taking action. For example, fully adjudicating a work permit (I-765) and an advance parole petition (I-131) takes less than half an hour of an employee’s time. However, if a mandamus lawsuit is filed due to an unreasonable delay, defending against that lawsuit would require several hours of a government attorney’s time. Consequently, there’s now an incentive to adjudicate those petitions, as it’s the less time-consuming and a more efficient course of action than defending a lawsuit. That is exactly what they do most of the time.
Mandamus lawsuits work by providing a strong incentive for the government to act on your case by creating a cost for government inaction and simply continue doing nothing with your case.