487 U.S. 72 (1988), 87-416, United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc..

Docket Nº:No. 87-416
Citation:487 U.S. 72, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69, 56 U.S.L.W. 4672
Party Name:United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc..
Case Date:June 20, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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487 U.S. 72 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69, 56 U.S.L.W. 4672

United States Catholic Conference

v.

Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc..

No. 87-416

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1988

Argued April 18, 1988

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., and others (ARM) filed suit against Government officials and petitioners, the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to revoke the Roman Catholic Church's tax-exempt status on the ground that the Church had violated the anti-electioneering provision of 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3). After petitioners were dismissed as parties, they refused to comply with ARM's subpoenas seeking extensive documentary evidence, and were held in contempt. The Court of Appeals affirmed the contempt citations, ruling that a nonparty witness' jurisdictional challenge is limited to a claim that the district court lacks even colorable jurisdiction, a standard not met here.

Held: A nonparty witness may defend against a civil contempt adjudication by challenging the district court's subject matter jurisdiction, and is not limited to the contention that the court lacked even colorable jurisdiction to hear the suit. Since a court's subpoena power cannot be more [108 S.Ct. 2269] extensive than its jurisdiction, the subpoenas it issues in aid of determining the merits are void if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying suit. Moreover, a nonparty witness has an unquestionable right to appeal a contempt adjudication, notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment in the underlying action. The contention that permitting a nonparty to challenge the court's jurisdiction would invite collusion, allowing parties to avoid restrictions on interlocutory appeals and to test jurisdiction by proxy, is not persuasive. Ample protections against collusive appeals exist in the courts of appeals' power to decline to treat the witness as a nonparty for purposes of the jurisdictional question, and in the usual provisions for sanctioning frivolous appeals or abuse of court processes. The rule followed in this case does not apply in criminal contempt proceedings, and does not affect a district court's inherent and legitimate authority to issue binding orders, including discovery orders, to nonparty witnesses, as necessary for the court to determine and rule upon its own jurisdiction, including subject matter jurisdiction. Here, however, the District Court's order was not issued to aid a jurisdictional inquiry, since the subpoenas were meant to obtain discovery on the merits, and before the contempt order the District

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Court twice ruled that it had subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, on remand, the Court of Appeals must determine whether the District Court had such jurisdiction in the underlying action. If not, the subpoenas are void, and the contempt citation must be reversed. Pp. 76-80.

824 F.2d 156, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 80.

KENNEDY, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners are the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both organizations were held in civil contempt for failure to comply with subpoenas duces tecum issued by the United States

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District Court for the Southern District of New York. The Conferences objected to issuance of the process, arguing, inter alia, that the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in the underlying suit. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected this argument, ruling that a nonparty witness' jurisdictional challenge is limited to a claim that the District Court lacks even colorable jurisdiction, a standard not met here. We granted certiorari to resolve whether a nonparty witness may defend against a civil contempt adjudication by challenging the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court. 484 U.S. 975 (1987). We hold the nonparty witness may raise such a claim, and now reverse.

I

In the underlying action, Abortion Rights Mobilization...

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