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Spallone v. United States


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493 U.S. 265 (1990), argued 2 Oct. 1989, decided 10 Jan. 1990 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Brennan in dissent. After finding that the City of Yonkers, New York, deliberately concentrated public housing in minority neighborhoods, effectively funneling minorities into one quarter, a federal district court ordered that future public housing be dispersed. After losing on appeal, the city accepted a consent decree that included the necessary ordinance, but the defiant city council reneged and failed to enact the ordinance. The district court held the city and the recalcitrant councilmembers in contempt and imposed escalating daily fines. After months of political posturing, the council finally passed the ordinance when the city's daily fines reached nearly one million dollars.

By a 5-to-4 vote, the Court, speaking through Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, held that the district court abused its discretion under traditional equitable principles by fining the individual councilmembers without first allowing a reasonable time for sanctions against the city alone to obtain compliance. In dissent, Justice William J. Brennan would have deferred to the discretion of the district judge, who was more familiar with local political realities.

Two important issues went undecided: whether the order against the councilmembers violated their freedom of speech to vote in a particular manner and whether they were protected against sanctions by the absolute legislative immunity that applies to state legislators.

Thomas E. Baker

Subjects: Law.


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