Int'l Union, United Mine Workers of America v. Bagwell, 921625

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation114 S.Ct. 2552,512 U.S. 821,129 L.Ed.2d 642
Docket Number921625
Decision Date30 June 1994

512 U.S. 821
114 S.Ct. 2552
129 L.Ed.2d 642


John L. BAGWELL et al.

No. 92-1625.
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued Nov. 29, 1993.
Decided June 30, 1994.
Syllabus *

A month after enjoining petitioners (collectively, the union) from conducting unlawful strike-related activities against certain mining companies, a Virginia trial court held a contempt hearing, fined the union for its disobedience, and announced that the union would be fined for any future breach of the injunction. In subsequent contempt hearings, the court levied against the union over $64,000,000 in what it termed coercive, civil fines, ordering most of the money to be paid to the Commonwealth and the counties affected by the unlawful activities. After the strike was settled, the court refused to vacate the fines owed to the Commonwealth and counties, concluding that they were payable in effect to the public. Ultimately, it appointed respondent Bagwell to act as Special Commissioner to collect the unpaid fines. The Virginia Court of Appeals reversed and ordered that the fines be vacated. The Virginia Supreme Court, reversing in its turn, rejected petitioners' contention that the fines were criminal and could not be imposed absent a criminal trial.

Held: The serious contempt fines imposed here were criminal and constitutionally could be imposed only through a jury trial. Pp. ____.

(a) A criminal contempt fine is punitive and can be imposed only through criminal proceedings, including the right to jury trial. A contempt fine is considered civil and remedial if it either coerces a defendant into compliance with a court order or compensates the complainant for losses sustained. United States v. United Mine Workers of America, 330 U.S. 258, 303-304, 67 S.Ct. 677, 701, 91 L.Ed. 884. Where a fine is not compensatory, it is civil only if the contemnor has an opportunity to purge, such as with per diem fines and fixed, suspended fines. Pp. ____.

(b) Most contempt sanctions share punitive and coercive characteristics, and the fundamental question underlying the distinction between civil and criminal contempts is what process is due for the imposition of any particular contempt sanction. Direct contempts can be penalized summarily in light of the court's substantial interest in maintaining order and because the need for extensive factfinding and the likelihood of an erroneous deprivation are reduced. Greater procedural protections are afforded for sanctions of indirect contempts. Certain indirect contempts are particularly appropriate for imposition through civil proceedings, including contempts impeding the court's ability to adjudicate the proceedings before it and those contempts involving discrete, readily ascertainable acts. For contempts of more complex injunctions, however, criminal procedures may be required. Pp. ____.

(c) The mere fact that the contempt fines here were announced in advance did not render them civil. Criminal laws generally provide notice of the sanction to be imposed, and the union's ability to avoid the contempt fines was indistinguishable from the ability of any citizen to avoid a criminal sanction. Other considerations confirm that the fines challenged here are criminal. Neither the parties nor the Commonwealth's courts have suggested that the fines are compensatory. The union's sanctionable conduct did not occur in the court's presence or otherwise implicate the core of the judicial contempt power, where lesser protections may be appropriate. Nor did the union's contumacy involve simple, affirmative acts, where the sanctions' force is primarily coercive and elaborate factfinding is not required. Instead the court levied fines for widespread, ongoing, out-of-court violations of a complex injunction, effectively policing the union's compliance with an entire code of conduct the court itself imposed. The contumacy lasted many months and spanned several counties, and the fines assessed were serious. Under these circumstances, disinterested factfinding and evenhanded adjudication were essential, and the union was entitled to a criminal jury trial. Pp. 2561-2563.

244 Va. 463, 423 S.E.2d 349 (1992), reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, II-C, and III, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II-B, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined.

Laurence Gold, for petitioners.

John G. Roberts, for respondents.

Paul Bender, for the U.S. as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court.

Michael E. Avakian, Center on Nat. Labor Policy, Inc. North Springfield, Va., amicus curiae on behalf of respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are called upon once again to consider the distinction between civil and criminal contempt. Specifically, we address whether contempt fines levied against a union for violations of a labor injunction are coercive civil fines, or are criminal fines that constitutionally could be imposed only through a jury trial. We conclude that the fines are criminal and, accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia.


Petitioners, the International Union, United Mine Workers of America and United Mine Workers of America, District 28 (collectively, the union) engaged in a protracted labor dispute with the Clinchfield Coal Company and Sea "B" Mining Company (collectively, the companies) over alleged unfair labor practices. In April 1989, the companies filed suit in the Circuit Court of Russell County, Virginia, to enjoin the union from conducting unlawful strike-related activities. The trial court entered an injunction which, as later amended, prohibited the union and its members from, among other things, obstructing ingress and egress to company facilities, throwing objects at and physically threatening company employees, placing tire-damaging "jackrocks" on roads used by company vehicles, and picketing with more than a specified number of people at designated sites. The court additionally ordered the union to take all steps necessary to ensure compliance with the injunction, to place supervisors at picket sites, and to report all violations to the court. App. to Pet. for Cert. 114a-116a.

On May 16, 1989, the trial court held a contempt hearing and found that petitioners had committed 72 violations of the injunction. After fining the union $642,000 for its disobedience,1 the court announced that it would fine the union $100,000 for any future violent breach of the injunction and $20,000 for any future nonviolent infraction, "such as exceeding picket numbers, [or] blocking entrances or exits." Id., at 111a. The Court early stated that its purpose was to "impos[e] prospective civil fines[,] the payment of which would only be required if it were shown the defendants disobeyed the Court's orders." Id., at 40a.

In seven subsequent contempt hearings held between June and December 1989, the court found the union in contempt for more than 400 separate violations of the injunction, many of them violent. Based on the court's stated "intention that these fines are civil and coercive," id., at 104a, each contempt hearing was conducted as a civil proceeding before the trial judge, in which the parties conducted discovery, introduced evidence, and called and cross-examined witnesses. The trial court required that contumacious acts be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but did not afford the union a right to jury trial.

As a result of these contempt proceedings, the court levied over $64,000,000 in fines against the union, approximately $12,000,000 of which was ordered payable to the companies. Because the union objected to payment of any fines to the companies and in light of the law enforcement burdens posed by the strike, the court ordered that the remaining roughly $52,000,000 in fines be paid to the Commonwealth of Virginia and Russell and Dickenson Counties, "the two counties most heavily affected by the unlawful activity." Id., at 44a.

While appeals from the contempt orders were pending, the union and the companies settled the underlying labor dispute, agreed to vacate the contempt fines, and jointly moved to dismiss the case. A special mediator representing the Secretary of Labor, App. 48-49, and the governments of Russell and Dickenson Counties, id., at 48 and 54, supported the parties' motion to vacate the outstanding fines. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, dissolved the injunction, and vacated the $12,000,000 in fines payable to the companies. After reiterating its belief that the remaining $52,000,000 owed to the counties and the Commonwealth were coercive, civil fines, the trial court refused to vacate these fines, concluding they were "payable in effect to the public." App. to Pet. for Cert. 47a.

The companies withdrew as parties in light of the settlement and declined to seek further enforcement of the outstanding contempt fines. Because the Commonwealth Attorneys of Russell and Dickenson Counties also had asked to be disqualified from the case, the court appointed respondent John L. Bagwell to act as Special Commissioner to collect the unpaid contempt fines on behalf of the counties and the Commonwealth. Id., at 48a.

The Court of Appeals of Virginia reversed and ordered that the contempt fines be vacated pursuant to the settlement agreement. Assuming for the purposes of argument that the fines were civil, the court concluded "that civil contempt fines imposed during or as a part of a civil proceeding between private parties are settled when the underlying litigation is settled by the parties and the court is without discretion to refuse to vacate such fines." Id., at 36a.


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