Spallone v. United States

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Spallone v. United States by William Rehnquist
Court Documents
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

493 U.S. 265

Spallone  v.  United States

No. Nos 88-854, 88-856 and 88-870  Argued: Oct. 2, 1989. --- Decided: Jan 10, 1990


In 1985, in a suit brought by the United States, the city of Yonkers and its community development agency were held liable for intentionally enhancing segregation in housing in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In early 1986, the District Court entered its remedial order, which enjoined the two named defendants and their officers, agents, and others acting in concert with them from discriminating and required the city to take extensive affirmative steps to disperse public housing throughout Yonkers. Pending appeal of the liability and remedial orders, the city failed and refused to take various of the required steps. Shortly after the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment in all respects, the parties agreed to a consent decree setting forth certain actions which the city would take to implement the remedial order, including the adoption, within 90 days, of a legislative package known as the Affordable Housing Ordinance. The decree was approved in a 5-to-2 vote by the city council-which is vested with all of the city's legislative powers-and entered by the District Court as a consent judgment in January 1988. When the city again delayed action, the District Court entered an order on July 26, 1988, requiring the city to enact the ordinance and providing that failure to do so would result in contempt citations, escalating daily fines for the city, and daily fines and imprisonment for recalcitrant individual councilmembers. After a resolution of intent to adopt the ordinance was defeated by a 4-to-3 council vote, petitioner individual councilmembers constituting the majority, the District Court held the city and petitioners in contempt and imposed the sanctions set forth in the July 26 order. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting, inter alia, petitioners' argument that the District Court had abused its discretion in sanctioning them. After this Court stayed the imposition of sanctions against the individual petitioners, but denied the city's request for a stay, the city council enacted the ordinance on September 9, 1988, in the face of daily fines approaching $1 million.

Held: In the circumstances of this case, the portion of the District Court's July 26 order imposing contempt sanctions against petitioner individual councilmembers if they failed to vote in favor of the ordinance was an abuse of discretion under traditional equitable principles. Petitioners were never parties to the action, nor were they found to be individually liable for any of the violations upon which the remedial order was based. Although the injunctive portion of that order was directed not only to the city but also to its officers and others acting in concert to discriminate, the remaining parts of the order requiring affirmative steps were directed only to the city. It was the city, in fact, which capitulated in the present phase of the case, and there was a reasonable probability that sanctions against the city alone would have achieved the desired result. The city's arguments against imposing sanctions on it pointed out the sort of pressure such sanctions would place on the city, and only eight months earlier, the District Court had secured compliance with an important remedial order through the threat of bankrupting fines against the city alone. While this Court's Speech or Debate Clause and federal common law of legislative immunity cases do not control the question whether local legislators such as petitioners should be immune from contempt sanctions, some of the considerations underlying the immunity doctrine must inform the District Court's exercise of discretion, particularly the theme that any restriction on a legislator's freedom undermines the "public good" by interfering with the rights of the people to representation in the democratic process. There are significant differences between fining the city and imposing sanctions on individual legislators, since the latter course causes legislators to vote, not with a view to the wishes of their constituents or to the fiscal solvency of the city, but with a view solely to their own personal monetary interest, and thereby effects a much greater perversion of the normal legislative process. Thus, in view of the fact that holding elected officials in contempt for the manner in which they vote is "extraordinary," as the District Court recognized, that court should have proceeded with sanctions first against the city alone in order to secure compliance with the remedial order. Only if that approach failed to produce compliance within a reasonable time should the question of imposing contempt sanctions against petitioners even have been considered. This limitation accords with the doctrine that, in selecting contempt sanctions, a court must exercise the least possible power adequate to the end proposed. Pp. 273-280.

856 F.2d 444 (CA 2 1988), reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 281.

James D. Harmon, Jr., Brooklyn, N.Y., for petitioners.

Sol. Gen. Kenneth W. Starr, Washington, D.C., for respondents.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


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).