McComb v. Jacksonville Paper Company/Concurrence Rutledge

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Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion

United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 187

McComb  v.  Jacksonville Paper Company

 Argued: Dec. 14, 15, 1948. --- Decided: Feb 14, 1949

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE concurs in the result.

Mr. Justice RANKFURTER, with whom Mr. Justice JACKSON concurs, dissenting.

Obedience must of course be secured for the command of a court. To secure such obedience is the function of a proceeding for contempt. But courts should be explicit and precise in their commands and should only then be strict in exacting compliance. To be both strict and indefinite is a kind of judicial tyranny.

In such a case as this, only after an administrative order has been formulated and a court has adjudicated that the order is within the administrator's statutory authority does the command of a court come into existence, disobedience of which may be punished as contempt. For violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act as such, one may be made to suffer civil penalties or imprisonment, but the latter only after conviction by a jury. For violation of the command of an injunction issued under the Act, however, he may not only be exposed to more severe civil penalties than the Act by its own terms imposes, but made to suffer imprisonment without benefit of jury trial. It is for such reasons that this Court has indicated again and again that a statute cannot properly be made the basis of contempt proceedings merely by incorporating a reference to its broad terms into a court order. See, e.g., Swift & Co. v. United States, 196 U.S. 375, 396, 25 S.Ct. 276, 279, 49 L.Ed. 518; New York, N.H. & H.R. Co. v. Interstate Commerce Comm., 200 U.S. 361, 404, 26 S.Ct. 272, 282, 50 L.Ed. 515; National Labor Relations Board v. Express Publishing Company, 312 U.S. 426, 435, 61 S.Ct. 693, 699, 85 L.Ed. 930. These considerations become increasingly important as there is increasing use of injunctions for the enforcement of administrative orders and statutory duties.

These are general principles but their application governed the decisions of the District Court and of the Circuit Court of Appeals; they should control the decision here. The two lower courts found that while the practices now complained of by the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor constituted violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, they were not on any fair consideration covered by the injunction, contempt of which is now charged. The injunction underlying this proceeding takes eight pages of a printed record and particularizes in great detail the violations which were enjoined. It also contains omnibus clauses prohibiting violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. On full consideration, the District Court treated the application for an adjudication of civil contempt 'as an amended complaint seeking a broadening of the injunctive orders heretofore entered in this case, and will enter an amended judgment enjoining defendants from violating the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act as adjudicated in this Memorandum Opinion.' 69 F.Supp. 599, 608. The Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with this view of the District Court (with a minor modification not here relevant). 167 F.2d 448. In short, both courts found no contempt. They did so because there was lacking that clearness of command in the court's order which warranted a finding of its disobedience, if due regard were paid to the proper construction of the injunction as the starting point of the contempt proceedings. At the least, such was a warrantable interpretation of the circumstances of this case, and we are disentitled to set our interpretation against theirs.

In reversing the conclusion of the two lower courts that there was no contempt because there was no disobedience of the injunction, the Court is rendering a decision of far-reaching import to the law of injunctions. Today's ruling happens to concern an injunction against an employer. Tomorrow it may be an injunction against employees, as it was yesterday and too often in the past. One of the grievances which led to the Norris-LaGuardia Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 101 et seq., was the generality of the terms of labor injunctions. Ambiguity lurks in generality and may thus become an instrum nt of severity. Behind the vague inclusiveness of an injunction like the one before us is the hazard of retrospective interpretation as the basis of punishment through contempt proceedings. The two lower courts, in finding that generally to enjoin obedience to a law is too vague a foundation for proceedings in contempt, were avoiding the very evil with which labor injunctions were justly charged. And of course it is not to be assumed that the allowable vagueness of an injunction varies with the use to which the injunction is put. This Court ought not to encourage injunctions couched in such indefinite terms by setting aside the findings of the courts below that the injunction did not forbid with explicitness sufficient to justify a finding of contempt.

I would affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).