430 U.S. 327 (1977), 75-1397, Juidice v. Vail

Docket Nº:No. 75-1397
Citation:430 U.S. 327, 97 S.Ct. 1211, 51 L.Ed.2d 376
Party Name:Juidice v. Vail
Case Date:March 22, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 327

430 U.S. 327 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1211, 51 L.Ed.2d 376




No. 75-1397

United States Supreme Court

March 22, 1977

Argued November 30, 1976




Following their failure to satisfy judgments against them in various civil actions in New York State courts, appellees, pursuant to provisions of the New York Judiciary Law, were held in contempt by appellant justices, and, except for appellees Ward and Rabasco, were fined and imprisoned for disobeying subpoenas to appear in supplemental proceedings brought by the respective judgment creditors in an attempt to collect the judgments. Appellees subsequently brought a class action against appellants in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking to have the statutory provisions authorizing contempt enjoined on federal constitutional grounds not raised in the state proceedings. By the time this action was filed all the appellees, except Ward and Rabasco, had paid their fines and were released from jail, whereas Ward and Rabasco alleged that they were threatened with imprisonment. The District Court declared the statute unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.


1. Only appellees Ward and Rabasco have standing to seek injunctive relief, since they are subject to pending proceedings in the state courts. The other appellees, absent any allegation or finding that they were threatened with further proceedings, have no standing, since, having been released from jail, they no longer have a live controversy with appellants or other state officials as to either the contempt citations or the short periods of incarceration that would entitle them to injunctive relief. Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, distinguished. Pp. 331-333.

2. The District Court erred in enjoining enforcement of the contempt procedures. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37; Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., supra. Pp. 333-339.

(a) The principles of federalism and comity enunciated in Younger and Huffman apply to a case in which the State's contempt process is involved. Whether disobedience of a court-sanctioned subpoena, and the resulting process leading to a finding of contempt of court, is labeled civil, quasi-criminal, or criminal, the salient fact is that federal court interference with the State's contempt process is "an offense to the State's interest . . . likely to be every bit as great as it would be were

Page 328

this a criminal proceeding," Huffman, supra at 604. Moreover, such interference with the contempt process not only "unduly interfere[s] with the [State's] legitimate activities," Younger, supra at 44, but also "can readily be interpreted `as reflecting negatively upon the state court's ability to enforce constitutional principles.'" Huffman, supra at 604. Pp. 333-336.

(b) Appellees clearly had an opportunity to present their federal claims in the state proceedings, and no more is required to invoke Younger abstention. Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, distinguished. Pp. 336-337.

(c) The exceptions to application of the Younger and Huffman principles are not present here, where it cannot be said that the New York statutes in question are flagrantly [97 S.Ct. 1214] and patently unconstitutional, and where there are neither allegations, proof, nor findings that appellants are enforcing the contempt procedures in bad faith or are motivated by a desire to harass. Pp. 338-339.

406 F.Supp. 951, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 339. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 341. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 347.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellee Harry Vail, Jr., is a judgment debtor who was held in contempt of court by the County Court of Dutchess County, N.Y., and who thereafter sought to have the statutory provisions authorizing contempts enjoined as unconstitutional

Page 329

in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District [97 S.Ct. 1212] of New York. The state court proceedings against Vail were found by the District Court to be, in most respects, representative of those against the other named appellees as well.1

Vail defaulted on a credit arrangement with the Public Loan Co., and, in January, 1974, a default judgment for $534.36 was entered against him in the City Court of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Three months later, when the judgment remained unpaid, Vail was served with a subpoena requiring him to attend a deposition so as to give information relevant to the satisfaction of the judgment.2 The subpoena required him to appear at the office of the creditor's attorney on May 28, a little more than a month after the date on which it was served, and stated, as is required by N.Y.Civ.Prac.Law § 5223 (McKinney 1963), that "failure to comply . . . is punishable as a contempt of court."

Vail did not appear for the deposition. Nearly two months after the scheduled deposition date, appellant Juidice, a Justice of the Dutchess County Court, issued an order requiring Vail to appear in that court on August 13 to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt.3 Vail failed to appear for that hearing. On August 30, appellant Juidice entered an order holding Vail in contempt and imposing a fine in the amount of $250 plus costs.4 Vail failed to pay the

Page 330

fine. On September 23, appellant Juidice issued an ex parte commitment order,5 and Vail was arrested and jailed pursuant to this order on October 1. He was released the following day when he paid the fine which had been imposed by the order.

Shortly thereafter, Vail, who had ignored for a period of more than nine months every stage of the stated court proceedings in which he had been a defendant, became a plaintiff in an action brought in the United States District Court. He and his coplaintiffs there sought to enjoin, on behalf of a class of judgment debtors, the use of the statutory contempt procedures authorized by New York law and employed by appellant justices on the ground that the procedures leading to imprisonment for contempt of court violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. As they never appeared in the New York courts, they obviously did not raise these constitutional claims in the state court proceedings. The contentions made before the District Court, however, could have been raised by appellees in the state courts as a [97 S.Ct. 1215] defense to the ongoing proceedings.6 Had the County Court ruled against these contentions, appellees could have appealed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.7 They chose, by resorting to the federal courts, not to avail themselves of this forum afforded them by the State of New York. We must decide whether, with the existence of an available forum for raising constitutional issues in a state judicial proceeding, the United States District Court could properly entertain appellees' § 1983 action in light of our decisions in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975). We hold that it could not.

Page 331


A three-judge District Court was convened in response to appellees' complaint and the action was later certified as a Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 23(b)(2) class action. The class was defined to include

all persons who have been, or are presently subject to the civil contempt proceedings contained in the challenged sections of the Judiciary Law.

App. to Jurisdictional Statement 18a. At the same time, the District Court rendered an opinion granting partial summary judgment to the appellees and

declaring that Sections 756, 757, 770, 772, 773, 774 and 775 of the Judiciary Law of the State of New York are unconstitutional on their face, and permanently enjoining the operation of said statutes against plaintiffs and members of their class, namely, all persons who have been or are presently subject to civil contempt proceedings pursuant to the above sections of the Judiciary Law. . . .

Id. at 20a.

Appellants in this Court challenged the District Court's failure to abstain on Younger grounds, as well as its decision on the merits. We noted probable jurisdiction, 426 U.S. 946, and since we agree with appellants' first contention, we do not reach the merits of the constitutional dispute.8

Although raised by neither of the parties, we are first obliged to examine the standing of appellees, as a matter of the case or controversy requirement associated with Art. III, to seek injunctive relief in the District Court. North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244 (1971); O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 493-498 (1974). At the time this lawsuit was

Page 332

commenced, or the additional appellees added, the named appellees, except Patrick Ward and Joseph Rabasco, had already been imprisoned pursuant to the contempt order, and, again excepting Ward and Rabasco, had been released after payment of the court-imposed fine. Ward had not been imprisoned, but alleged that he was "in imminent danger of being imprisoned pursuant to the Order of Contempt. . . ." Complaint 155. A temporary restraining order, which has remained in effect throughout this lawsuit, was issued by the District Court, enjoining the State from incarcerating Ward pursuant to the contempt order. Rabasco similarly alleged the threat of imprisonment after the issuance by the state court of an order to show cause which he has not complied with. The District Court restrained further state proceedings against Rabasco.

All of the named appellees, except Ward and Rabasco, then, having been released from jail, no longer had a live controversy with appellants or other New York...

To continue reading