404 U.S. 496 (1972), 70-112, Groppi v. Leslie

Docket Nº:No. 70-112
Citation:404 U.S. 496, 92 S.Ct. 582, 30 L.Ed.2d 632
Party Name:Groppi v. Leslie
Case Date:January 13, 1972
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 496

404 U.S. 496 (1972)

92 S.Ct. 582, 30 L.Ed.2d 632




No. 70-112

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1972

Argued November 10, 1971




Wisconsin legislative resolution citing petitioner for contempt for conduct on the floor of the State Assembly that occurred two days previous to the contempt resolution and sentencing him to confinement held violative of due process, since petitioner, who was readily available, was given no notice before the resolution was adopted or afforded any opportunity to respond by way of defense or extenuation. Pp. 499-507.

436 F.2d 326 and 331, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted the writ of certiorari to review the holding of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, denying petitioner relief in habeas corpus proceedings after the District Court had granted relief.

On October 1, 1969, the Assembly of the Wisconsin Legislature passed a resolution citing petitioner for contempt and directing his confinement in the Dane County

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jail for a period of six months or for the duration of the 1969 Regular Session of the legislature, whichever was shorter. The resolution recited that petitioner had, two days previously, led a gathering of people which, by its presence on the floor of the Assembly during a regular meeting in violation of an Assembly Rule, "prevented the Assembly from conducting public business and performing its constitutional duty." The resolution contained a finding that petitioner's actions constituted "disorderly conduct in the immediate view of the house and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings" which the Assembly was authorized to punish under the State Constitution and statutes.1

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[92 S.Ct. 584] The record before us contains little to flesh out the recitations of the contempt resolution with the details of petitioner's conduct on the day of September 29, 1969. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in its opinion denying petitioner's application for habeas corpus, took judicial notice that petitioner's conduct was designed to protest cuts in the state budget for certain welfare programs, and that the "occupation" of the Assembly chamber by petitioner and his supporters continued from midday to "well toward midnight," during all of which time the Assembly was prevented from conducting its lawful business.2

The contempt resolution was adopted without giving notice to petitioner or affording him an opportunity to present a defense or information in mitigation. A copy of the resolution was then served on petitioner who, at the time the resolution was passed, was already confined in the Dane County jail following his arrest on disorderly conduct charges arising out of the same incident as that

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underlying the resolution.3 Petitioner's confinement after he was served with the resolution was pursuant to its authority.

Petitioner then commenced actions in both state and federal courts contending that his confinement violated his constitutional rights, and seeking his release. Petitioner's applications for habeas corpus were denied by the Circuit Court for Dane County and the Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, after the state courts had acted, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted petitioner's federal habeas application. The District Court was of the view that petitioner had been denied due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment by the failure of the Assembly to accord him "some minimal opportunity to appear and to respond to a charge" prior to the imposition of punishment for contempt. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the holding of the District Court; the holding of the panel was adopted by a narrowly divided court on rehearing en banc. We granted certiorari. For the reasons stated herein, we conclude that petitioner was denied due process of law by the procedures employed in punishing him for contempt, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


The past decisions of this Court expressly recognizing the power of the Houses of the Congress to punish contemptuous conduct leave little question that the Constitution imposes no general barriers to the legislative exercise of such power. E.g., Jurney v. MacCracken, 294 U.S. 125 (1935); Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204 (1821). There is nothing in the Constitution

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that would place greater restrictions on the States than on the Federal Government in this regard. See Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 199 (1881). We are therefore concerned only with the procedures that the Due Process Clause of the Federal Constitution requires a state legislature to meet in imposing punishment for contemptuous conduct committed in its presence.

This Court has often recognized that the requirements of due process cannot be ascertained through mechanical application of a formula. See, e.g., Cafeteria Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 894-895 (1961); Hannah v. Larch, 363 U.S. 420 (1960). Mr. Justice Frankfurter, in another context, aptly stated that due process

is compounded of history, reason, the past course of decisions, and stout confidence in the strength of the democratic faith which we profess. . . .

Joint Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 162-163 (1951) (concurring opinion). Courts must be sensitive to the nature of a legislative contempt proceeding and the "possible burden on that proceeding" that a given procedure might entail. Hannah v. Larche, 363 U.S. at 442. Legislatures are not constituted to conduct full-scale trials or quasi-judicial proceedings, and we should not demand that they do so, although they possess inherent power to protect their own processes and existence by way of contempt proceedings. For this reason, the Congress of the United States, for example, no longer undertakes to exercise its contempt powers in all cases but elects to delegate that function to federal courts. 52 Stat. 942, 2 U.S.C. §§ 192-194.

The potential for disrupting or immobilizing the vital legislative processes of State and Federal Governments that would flow from a rule requiring a full-blown legislative "trial" prior to the imposition of punishment for contempt of the legislature is a factor entitled to very great weight; this is particularly true where the contemptuous

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conduct, as here, is committed directly in the presence of the legislative body. The past decisions of this Court strongly indicate that the panoply of procedural rights that are accorded a defendant in a criminal trial has never been thought necessary in legislative contempt proceedings. The customary practice in Congress has been to provide the contemnor with an opportunity to appear before the bar of the House, or before a committee, and give answer to the misconduct charged against him. See Jurney v. MacCracken, 294 U.S. at 143-144; Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. at 173, 174; Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. at 209-211; Marshall v. Gordon, 243 U.S. 521, 532 (1917).4 Such would appear to have been the general practice in colonial times, and in the [92 S.Ct. 586] early state legislatures.5 This practice more nearly resembles the traditional right of a criminal defendant to allocution prior to the imposition of sentence than it does a criminal prosecution. See Green v. United States, 365 U.S. 301 (1961).

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In this case, however, there is no occasion to define or delineate precisely what process is due, and must be accorded to a contemnor prior to the legislative imposition of punishment for contemptuous conduct. Here, the Wisconsin Assembly, two days after the conduct had occurred, found petitioner in contempt and sentenced him to confinement without giving him notice of any kind or opportunity to answer. There is no question of his having fled or become otherwise unavailable for, as we have noted, he was confined in the county jail at the time, and could easily have been given notice, if indeed not compelled, to appear before the Assembly. We find little in our past decisions that would shed light on the precise problem, but nothing to give warrant to the summary procedure employed here, coming as it did two days after the contempt. Indeed, we have stated time and again that reasonable notice of a charge and an opportunity to be heard in defense before punishment is imposed are "basic in our system of jurisprudence." In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 273 (1948). See, e.g., Joint Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. at 143, 164-165, 171-172, 178, 185 (concurring opinions of Black, Frankfurter, DOUGLAS, and Jackson, JJ.); Cole v. Arkansas, 333 U.S. 196, 201 (1948). We have emphasized this fundamental principle where rights of less standing than personal liberty were at stake. E.g., Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337 (1969); Morgan v. United States, 304 U.S. 1, 18 (1938); Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385, 394 (1914). In Mullane v. Central Hanover Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306 (1950), the Court stated:

Many controversies have raged about the cryptic and abstract words of the Due Process Clause but there can be no doubt that, at a minimum, they

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require that deprivation of life, liberty or property by adjudication be preceded by notice and opportunity for...

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