Spallone v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Jimmy Swaggart Ministries

DOCKET NO.: 88-854
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 493 US 265 (1990)
ARGUED: Oct 02, 1989
DECIDED: Jan 10, 1990

James H. Harmon – on behalf of the Petitioners
Kenneth W. Starr – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Spallone v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 02, 1989 in Spallone v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 10, 1990 in Spallone v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 88-854, Spallone against the United States and companion cases.

The petitioners here are members of the City Council of the City of Yonkers, New York.

In 1985, in a suit brought by the United States, the District Court held that the City and its community development agency reliable for intentionally enhancing housing discrimination in violation to the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In early 1986, the District Court entered a remedial decree which enjoined the City of Yonkers and its officials from intentionally promoting residential segregation in Yonkers.

The decree ordered the City to take affirmative steps to disperse public housing throughout Yonkers.

Among the steps required of the city was the development of a long term plan for the creation of additional subsidized family housing units in Yonkers.

A person to a consent decree which is approved by the Yonkers City Council, the City Council agreed to adapt, within a certain period of time, legislation creating incentives with the development of subsidized housing.

But pending the resolution of the City’s appeal to the Second Circuit and for several months afterwards, the City continued to delay action toward implementing the long term plan.

Finally, on July 26, 1988, the District Court ordered the City of Yonkers to enact on or before August 1, 1988 an ordinance designed to implement the legislative packages described in an earlier consent decree.

The order went on to provide that in the event the City failed to adapt the legislation, the City and each individual City Council member would be required to show cause why they should not be held in contempt.

The order specified daily fines of $500 per day for the members of the City Council.

Notwithstanding this threat of substantial sanctions, the City Council defeated a resolution to adapt the package by a vote of four-to-three and all of the petitioners were in the majority of that vote.

After a hearing, the District Court held both the City and the individual Council members in contempt.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed and we granted certiorari.

The City meanwhile, facing ever mounting fines, did enact the legislation complying with the consent decree by a vote of five-to-two of the City Council.

In an opinion filed today, we conclude that the portion of the District Court’s order imposing contempt sanctions against the individual City Council members if they fail to vote in favor of the court-proposed ordinance was an abusive discretion under traditional acquitable principles.

The petitioners were never parties to the action and the parts of the remedial 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.

Holding elected officials in contempt for the manner in which they vote is extraordinary as the District Court itself recognized.

We think 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 the individual Council members have been considered.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore, reversed.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens have joined.