United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

PETITIONER: United States Catholic Conference
RESPONDENT: Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.
LOCATION: United States Catholic Conference

DOCKET NO.: 87-416
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 487 US 72 (1988)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1988
DECIDED: Jun 20, 1988

ADVOCATES:
Alan I. Horowitz - as federal respondents supporting Petitioners
Kevin T. Baine - on behalf of the Petitioners
Marshall Beil - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. and a collection of tax-paying and tax-exempt abortion rights supporters (ARM) sued the Secretary of the Treasury, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the United States Catholic Conference, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (Conferences). ARM alleged that the Conferences participated in political activities in violation of U.S. laws governing tax-exempt organizations and that this participation created an unfair advantage over other, rule-abiding tax-exempt groups and infringed upon the plaintiffs’ ability to participate in the political process as voters. After the court granted the Conferences motion to be dismissed as parties to the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ARM sought financial documents and other information from the Conferences to support their claims against the remaining defendants. When the Conferences refused to comply, the district court held them in civil contempt. On appeal, the Conferences contended that ARM lacked standing to bring its case against the government officials and, therefore, the court did not have the power to issue the contempt citation under Article III. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed and held that witnesses may challenge a contempt citation only on the grounds that the issuing court lacked jurisdiction to hear the underlying dispute.

 

Question

May a nonparty witness challenge a civil contempt citation by challenging the court’s subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying lawsuit?

 

Media for United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1988 in United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 1988 in United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The second case is United States Catholic Conference versus Abortion Rights Mobilization Inc.

This case comes before us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The action in the dispute, which underlies this case, is a suit in which certain coalitions and persons, who advocate a pro-abortion position, are suing the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

The suit is to compel those officials to revoke the tax-exempt status as Roman Catholic Church and certain of its related entities in the United States.

United States Catholic Conference and National Conference of Catholic Bishops were once parties to this suit but were then dismissed.

They remained important witnesses however, which gives rise to the case before us.

The plaintiffs in the tax exemption suit served subpoenas on the two Conferences as potential witnesses.

The subpoenas were broad in scope and require production of extensive documentary evidence including documents which was alleged would reflect the church's support for pro-life candidates and initiatives in local state and federal elections.

The Conferences refused to comply with the subpoenas.

After a series of court orders to produce, intertwined with other procedural motions, the Conferences remained steadfast in their refusal to turnover the information.

The District Court eventually held the Conferences in civil contempt.

It assessed to fine against the two Conferences in the sum of $50,000 per day each for every day they refuse to comply.

The order was stayed pending appeal and the stay remains in effect.

The Conferences appealed the contempt sanction to the Second Circuit.

They argued that the trial court lack any subject-matter jurisdiction over the underlying action primarily because the plaintiffs had no standing sue the Secretary of the Treasury or the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to compel them to revoke the tax exemption.

It followed, the Conferences argued, that the lower court was without authority to issue the subpoenas.

While recognizing that the Conferences were proper parties before it, since they have the right to appeal the contempt order, the Circuit held that the witnesses could challenge jurisdiction only if they allege that the District Court lack even colorable jurisdiction to entertain the contested suit.

On this reasoning, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the sanctions and rejected the contention that it could examine the subject-matter jurisdiction of the District Court.

We granted certiorari to resolve whether a nonparty witness may defend against the civil contempt adjudication by challenging the subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court.

We now reverse.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 grants the District Court the power to issue subpoenas as to witnesses and documents, but the subpoena power of a Court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction, because the civil contempt adjudication is a final judgment as to the person in contempt.

We have previously held that the contempt adjudication is appealable notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment in the underlying action.

We hold that a nonparty witness, when appealing the finding of civil contempt, may challenge the subject matter jurisdiction of the issuing court.

The challenge in this case goes to the power of the Court to issue the order.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Marshall has filed a separate dissenting opinion.