493 U.S. 265 (1989), Spallone v. United States

Citation:493 U.S. 265, 110 S.Ct. 625, 107 L.Ed.2d 644, 58 U.S.L.W. 4103
Party Name:Spallone v. United States
Case Date:January 10, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 265

493 U.S. 265 (1989)

110 S.Ct. 625, 107 L.Ed.2d 644, 58 U.S.L.W. 4103



United States

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 10, 1990




In 1985, in a suit brought by the United States, the city of Yonkers and its community development agency were held liable for intentionally enhancing segregation in housing in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In early 1986, the District Court entered its remedial order, which enjoined the two named defendants and their officers, agents, and others acting in concert with them from discriminating and required the city to take extensive affirmative steps to disperse public housing throughout Yonkers. Pending appeal of the liability and remedial orders, the city failed and refused to take various of the [110 S.Ct. 627] required steps. Shortly after the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment in all respects, the parties agreed to a consent decree setting forth certain actions which the city would take to implement the remedial order, including the adoption, within 90 days, of a legislative package known as the Affordable Housing Ordinance. The decree was approved in a to-2 vote by the city council -- which is vested with all of the city's legislative powers -- and entered by the District Court as a consent judgment in January, 1988. When the city again delayed action, the District Court entered an order on July 26, 1988, requiring the city to enact the ordinance and providing that failure to do so would result in contempt citations, escalating daily fines for the city, and daily fines and imprisonment for recalcitrant individual councilmembers. After a resolution of intent to adopt the ordinance was defeated by a 4-to-3 council vote, petitioner individual councilmembers constituting the majority, the District Court held the city and petitioners in contempt and imposed the sanctions set forth in the July 26 order. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting, inter alia, petitioners' argument that the District Court had abused its discretion in sanctioning them. After this Court stayed the imposition of sanctions against the individual petitioners, but denied the city's request for a stay, the city council enacted the ordinance on September 9, 1988, in the face of daily fines approaching $1 million.

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Held: In the circumstances of this case, the portion of the District Court's July 26 order imposing contempt sanctions against petitioner individual councilmembers if they failed to vote in favor of the ordinance was an abuse of discretion under traditional equitable principles. Petitioners were never parties to the action, nor were they found to be individually liable for any of the violations upon which the remedial order was based. Although the injunctive portion of that order was directed not only to the city but also to its officers and others acting in concert to discriminate, the remaining parts of the 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. The city's arguments against imposing sanctions on it pointed out the sort of pressure such sanctions would place on the city, and only eight months earlier, the District Court had secured compliance with an important remedial order through the threat of bankrupting fines against the city alone. While this Court's Speech and Debate Clause and federal common law of legislative immunity cases do not control the question whether local legislators such as petitioners should be immune from contempt sanctions, some of the considerations underlying the immunity doctrine must inform the District Court's exercise of discretion, particularly the theme that any restriction on a legislator's freedom undermines the "public good" by interfering with the rights of the people to representation in the democratic process. There are significant differences between fining the city and imposing sanctions on individual legislators, since the latter course causes legislators to vote, not with a view to the wishes of their constituents or to the fiscal solvency of the city, but with a view solely to their own personal monetary interest, and thereby effects a much greater perversion of the normal legislative process. Thus, in view of the fact that holding elected officials in contempt for the manner in which they vote is "extraordinary," as the District Court recognized, 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 petitioners even have been considered. This limitation accords with the doctrine that, in selecting contempt sanctions, a court must exercise the least possible power adequate to the end proposed. Pp. 273-280.

[110 S.Ct. 628] 856 F.2d 444 (CA 2 1988), reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 281.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is the most recent episode of a lengthy lawsuit in which the city of Yonkers was held liable for intentionally enhancing racial segregation in housing in Yonkers. The issue here is whether it was a proper exercise of judicial power for the District Court to hold petitioners, four Yonkers city councilmembers, in contempt for refusing to vote in favor of legislation implementing a consent decree earlier approved by the city. We hold that, in the circumstances of this case, the District Court abused its discretion.

Page 268


In 1980, the United States filed a complaint alleging, inter alia, that the two named defendants -- the city of Yonkers and the Yonkers Community Development Agency -- had intentionally engaged in a pattern and practice of housing discrimination, in violation of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, 82 Stat. 81, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. (1982 ed.), and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Government and plaintiff-intervenor National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asserted that the city had, over a period of three decades, selected sites for subsidized housing in order to perpetuate residential racial segregation. The plaintiffs' theory was that the city had equated subsidized housing for families with minority housing, and thus disproportionately restricted new family housing projects to areas of the city -- particularly southwest Yonkers -- already predominately populated by minorities.

The District Court found the two named defendants liable, concluding that the segregative effect of the city's actions had been "consistent and extreme," and that

the desire to preserve existing patterns of segregation ha[d] been a significant factor in the sustained community opposition to subsidized housing in East Yonkers and other overwhelmingly white areas of the City.

United States v. Yonkers Bd. of Ed., 624 F.Supp. 1276, 1369-1371 (SDNY 1985). The District Court in its remedial decree enjoined "the City of Yonkers, its officers, agents, employees, successors and all persons in active concert or participation with any of them" from, inter alia, intentionally promoting racial residential segregation in Yonkers, taking any action intended to deny or make unavailable housing to any person on account of race or national origin, and from blocking or limiting the availability of public or subsidized housing in east or northwest Yonkers on the basis of race or national origin. United States v. Yonkers Bd. of

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Ed., 635 F.Supp. 1577 (SDNY 1986). Other parts of the remedial order were directed only to the city. They required affirmative steps to disperse public housing throughout Yonkers. Part IV of the order noted that the city previously had committed itself to provide acceptable sites for 200 units of public housing as a condition for receiving 1983 Community Development Block Grant funds from the Federal Government, but had failed to do so. Consequently, it required the city to designate sites for 200 units of public housing in East Yonkers, and to submit to the Department of Housing and Urban Development an acceptable Housing Assistance Plan for 1984-1985 and other documentation. Id. at 1580-1581. Part VI directed the city to develop by November, 1986, a long-term plan "for the creation of additional subsidized family housing units . . . in existing residential areas in east or [110 S.Ct. 629] northwest Yonkers." Id. at 1582. The court did not mandate specific details of the plan such as how many subsidized units must be developed, where they should be constructed, or how the city should provide for the units.

Under the Charter of the city of Yonkers, all legislative powers are vested in the city council, which consists of an elected mayor and six councilmembers, including petitioners. The city, for all practical purposes, therefore, acts through the city council when it comes to the enactment of legislation. Pending appeal of the District Court's liability and remedial orders, however, the city did not comply with Parts IV and VI of the remedial order. The city failed to propose sites for the public housing, and in November, 1986, informed the District Court that it would not present a long-term...

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