United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc, No. 87-416

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtKENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL
Citation108 S.Ct. 2268,487 U.S. 72,101 L.Ed.2d 69
Docket NumberNo. 87-416
Decision Date20 June 1988
PartiesUNITED STATES CATHOLIC CONFERENCE, et al., Petitioners, v. ABORTION RIGHTS MOBILIZATION, INC., et al

487 U.S. 72
108 S.Ct. 2268
101 L.Ed.2d 69
UNITED STATES CATHOLIC CONFERENCE, et al., Petitioners,

v.

ABORTION RIGHTS MOBILIZATION, INC., et al.

No. 87-416.
Argued April 18, 1988.
Decided June 20, 1988.
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 antielectioneering provision of 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3) (1988 ed.). 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 citation, 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 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.

Kevin T. Baine, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Alan I. Horowitz, Washington, D.C., for the respondents supporting petitioners, by special leave of Court.

Marshall Beil, New York City, for respondents.

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

Page 74

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, 108 S.Ct. 484, 98 L.Ed.2d 482 (1987). We hold the nonparty witness may raise such a claim, and now reverse.

I

In the underlying action, Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., and others (ARM) sued to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. ARM alleged that the Conferences had violated the rules governing their tax-exempt status by participating in political activities.* Specifically, ARM claimed that "the Roman Catholic

Page 75

Church in the United States . . ., in violation of the clear language and intent of the anti-electioneering provision of 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3), has engaged in a persistent and regular pattern of intervening in elections nationwide in favor of candidates who support the Church's position on abortion and in opposition to candidates with opposing views." Brief for Respondents 7-8. The Conferences were originally named as parties to this suit, but were later dismissed, leaving the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue as the sole defendants.

ARM served subpoenas on the Conferences in 1983, seeking extensive documentary evidence to support its claims. A series of court orders to produce, intertwined with other procedural motions, were followed by objections and refusals. These matters were extensively reported by the District Court. See Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. v. Regan, 544 F.Supp. 471 (1982) (ARM I); Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. v. Regan, 552 F.Supp. 364 (1982) ( ARM II); Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. v. Regan, 603 F.Supp. 970 (1985) (ARM III); Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. v. Baker, 110 F.R.D. 337 (1986) (ARM IV). After the Conferences informed the court that they could not "in conscience, comply with the subpoenas in question," the court, which had made detailed orders including orders limiting discovery at the behest of the Conferences, found the Conferences in civil contempt. ARM IV, supra, at 337. The court assessed fines of $50,000 against each Conference for each day of further noncompliance. The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that "the witnesses have standing to question only whether the District Court has a colorable basis for exercising subject matter jurisdiction. . . ." In re United States Catholic Conference, 824 F.2d 156, 158 (1987). The order was stayed pending appeal, and the stay remains in effect.

Page 76

II

We hold that a nonparty witness can challenge the court's lack of subject-matter jurisdiction in defense of a civil contempt citation, notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment in the underlying action. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 grants a district court the power to issue subpoenas as to witnesses...

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204 practice notes
  • Lantheus Med. Imaging, Inc. v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., No. 10 Civ. 9371(JPO)(JLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • January 11, 2012
    ...have jurisdiction over the non-party from whom discovery is sought. See U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 (1988) (“Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 grants a district court the power to issue subpoenas as to witn......
  • Vera v. Republic of Cuba, Docket No. 16-1227
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • August 14, 2017
    ...power of a court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction." U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. , 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 (1988). A district court must therefore determine whether it has jurisdiction, no matter how a case comes before......
  • In re Subpoena to University of Nc at Chapel Hill, No. 1:03MC138.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
    • April 14, 2005
    ...Willingway, 870 F.Supp. at 1107-1108. Finally, "the subpoena power of a court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction." 487 U.S. 72, 74, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 In t......
  • Bd. of Selectmen of the Town of Grafton v. Grafton & Upton R.R. Co., CIVIL ACTION NO. 12-cv-40164-TSH
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • May 22, 2013
    ...that courts have finite bounds of authority'.") (emphasis added) (quoting U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 77, 108 S. Ct. 2268 (1988)). Plaintiffs, as "master[s] to decide what law [they] will rely upon," may strategically try to remedy their clai......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
205 cases
  • Lantheus Med. Imaging, Inc. v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., No. 10 Civ. 9371(JPO)(JLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • January 11, 2012
    ...have jurisdiction over the non-party from whom discovery is sought. See U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 (1988) (“Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 grants a district court the power to issue subpoenas as to witn......
  • Vera v. Republic of Cuba, Docket No. 16-1227
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • August 14, 2017
    ...power of a court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction." U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. , 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 (1988). A district court must therefore determine whether it has jurisdiction, no matter how a case comes before......
  • In re Subpoena to University of Nc at Chapel Hill, No. 1:03MC138.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
    • April 14, 2005
    ...Willingway, 870 F.Supp. at 1107-1108. Finally, "the subpoena power of a court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction." 487 U.S. 72, 74, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 76, 108 S.Ct. 2268, 101 L.Ed.2d 69 In t......
  • Bd. of Selectmen of the Town of Grafton v. Grafton & Upton R.R. Co., CIVIL ACTION NO. 12-cv-40164-TSH
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • May 22, 2013
    ...that courts have finite bounds of authority'.") (emphasis added) (quoting U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., 487 U.S. 72, 77, 108 S. Ct. 2268 (1988)). Plaintiffs, as "master[s] to decide what law [they] will rely upon," may strategically try to remedy their clai......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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