Spallone v. United States
Decided Jan. 10, 1990; 493 US 265


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (race), 14th Amendment, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968,  judicial power, jurisdiction of federal courts.

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Was it a proper exercise of judicial power for the District Court to hold petitioners in contempt for refusing to implement a consent decree earlier ordered by a higher court?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

In 1985, in a suit brought by the United States, the City of Yonkers, NY, 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.  After finding that the City of Yonkers deliberately concentrated public housing in minority neighborhoods, effectively funneling minorities into one quarter of the city, a federal district court ordered that future public housing be dispersed. 

The City of Yonkers lost their appeal at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and accepted a consent decree that included an ordinance to disperse public housing, but the city council failed to enact the ordinance.  The District Court held the city and councilmembers in contempt and imposed escalating daily fines.  After months of delays the city council enacted the ordinance, in the face of daily fines approaching $1 million. 

Petitioners, four Yonkers city councilmembers, appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court reviewed the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Solicitor General Starr argued the cause for respondents in all cases. With him on the brief for the United States were Acting Assistant Attorney General Turner, Deputy Solicitor General Shapiro, Michael R. Lazerwitz, David K. Flynn, and Linda F. Thome.

Grover G. Hankins filed a brief for respondents Yonkers Branch - National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et al.

James D. Harmon, Jr., argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Barry G. Saretsky, Martin S. Kaufman, Michael J. Eng, and Aaron F. Fishbein. Anthony J. Mercorella, James L. Fischer, Vincent R. Fontana, and Vincent R. Cappucci also filed briefs for petitioners. 

William Greenberg and Joseph Maria filed briefs for petitioners.  Rex E. Lee, Carter G. Phillips, Mark D. Hopson, Stanley R. Strauss, Michael W. Sculnick, and Paul W. Pickelle filed a brief for the city of Yonkers, in support of petitioners.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
 (Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)

Unavailable

Unavailable

III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Steven R. Shapiro, Christopher A. Hansen, John A. Powell, Helen Hershkoff, and Arthur N. Eisenberg filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., as amici curiae urging affirmance. Henry Mark Holzer, Daniel J. Popeo, and Paul D. Kamenar filed a brief for the Yonkers Federation, Inc., as amicus curiae.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"We hold that the District Court, in view of the 'extraordinary' nature of the imposition of sanctions against the individual councilmembers, should have proceeded with such contempt 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 a court must exercise '[t]he least possible power adequate to the end proposed.'"

Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S., Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.