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Law School Case Brief

Int'l Union v. Bagwell - 512 U.S. 821, 114 S. Ct. 2552 (1994)


The dichotomy between coercive and punitive imprisonment has been extended to the fine context. A contempt fine accordingly is considered civil and remedial if it either coerces the defendant into compliance with the court's order, or compensates the complainant for losses sustained. Where a fine is not compensatory, it is civil only if the contemnor is afforded an opportunity to purge. Thus, a flat, unconditional fine totaling even as little as $50 announced after a finding of contempt is criminal if the contemnor has no subsequent opportunity to reduce or avoid the fine through compliance.


In connection with a protracted labor dispute, two mining companies filed suit in the Circuit Court of Russell County, Virginia, to enjoin a labor union from conducting unlawful strike-related activities. The Circuit Court entered an injunction that prohibited the union and its members from engaging in various activities, including obstructing ingress and egress to company facilities, physically threatening company employees, placing tire-damaging objects on roads used by company vehicles, and picketing with more than a specified number of people at designated sites. In the following month, the Circuit Court held a contempt hearing and found that the union had committed numerous violations of the injunction. The Circuit Court, stating that its purpose was to impose prospective civil fines, announced that it would fine the union $100,000 for any future violent breach of the injunction and $20,000 for any future nonviolent breach. In seven subsequent contempt hearings, each one conducted as a civil proceeding before a trial judge without a jury, the Circuit Court found the union in contempt for more than 400 separate violations, many of them violent, and levied fines of over $52 million payable to the state and two counties and approximately $12 million payable to the companies. Ultimately, the union and the companies settled the underlying labor dispute, agreed to vacate the contempt fines, and jointly moved to dismiss the case. The Circuit Court granted the motion to dismiss, dissolved the injunction, and vacated the fines payable to the companies, but refused to vacate the remaining fines. Moreover, the Circuit Court appointed a special commissioner to collect those fines on behalf of the state and the counties. The Court of Appeals of Virginia reversed and ordered that the fines be vacated pursuant to the settlement agreement. The Supreme Court of Virginia, in reversing on consolidated appeals, rejected the union's contention that the outstanding fines were criminal and could not be imposed absent a criminal trial, reasoning that the fines had been intended to coerce compliance with the injunction, and the fines were thus civil and had properly been imposed in civil proceedings. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.


Were the fines imposed on the unions by the state circuit court criminal fines rather than coercive civil fines?




The United States Suprme Court held that the fines in question were criminal fines rather than coercive civil fines, and thus could not, consistent with the Federal Constitution, be imposed absent a jury trial, since the unions' sanctionable conduct had not occurred in the Circuit Court's presence or otherwise implicated the Circuit Court's ability to maintain order and adjudicate the proceedings. According to the Court, the fact that the Circuit Court had announced the penalty before the contumacy rather than after the fact did not, in itself, render the fines coercive and civil as a matter of constitutional law, since the unions' ability to avoid the fines was indistinguishable from the ability of any ordinary citizen to avoid a criminal sanction by conforming the citizen's behavior to the law. Moreover, the Court averred that the fines were more closely analogous to fixed, retrospective criminal fines because the unions had no opportunity to purge once the fines were imposed. Thus, the Court held that the unions were entitled to a criminal jury trial.

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