United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization
Decided on June 20, 1988; 487 US 72


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

A. Issues Discussed:  Governmental authority (civil procedure), judicial power, federal court jurisdiction 

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Can a nonparty witness defend against a civil contempt adjudication by challenging the subject-matter jurisdiction of the district court?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc. (ARM) sued to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. ARM alleged that the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops violated the rules governing their tax-exempt status by participating in political activities.  After petitioners were dismissed in district court 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" (appearance of jurisdiction). 
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Marshall Beil argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents.
Alan I. Horowitz argued the cause for the federal respondents in support of petitioners. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Rose, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Robert S. Pomerance, and Teresa E. McLaughlin.Kevin T. Baine argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Edward Bennett Williams, Charles H. Wilson, Richard S. Hoffman, Mark E. Chopko, and Philip H. Harris.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee) 
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the National Abortion Rights Action League, et al., by Ellyn R. Weiss; and for the National Association of Laity by Cletus P. Lyman.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, et al., by Steven R. Shapiro, John A. Powell, Helen Hershkoff, C. Edwin Baker, and Arthur N. Eisenberg; and for the Rutherford Institute by William Bonner, John F. Southworth, Jr., Alfred J. Lindh, Ira W. Still III, William B. Hollberg, Randall A. Pentiuk, Thomas W. Strahan, James J. Knicely, John W. Whitehead, and David E. Morris.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Christian Legal Society by Michael J. Woodruff and Samuel E. Ericsson; and for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, et al., by Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., and Douglas Laycock.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"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
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."
Justice Vote: 1 Pro vs. 8 Con

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

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court's decision by a 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.