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While remedial powers of an equity court must be adequate to the task, they are not unlimited. The federal courts in devising a remedy must take into account the interests of state and local authorities in managing their own affairs, consistent with the Constitution. And the use of the contempt power places an additional limitation on a district court's discretion. In selecting contempt sanctions, a court is obliged to use the least possible power adequate to the end proposed.
In 1985, in a suit brought by the United States, the city of Yonkers 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. In early 1986, the District Court entered its remedial order, which enjoined the two named defendants and their officers, agents, and others acting in concert with them from discriminating and required the city to take extensive affirmative steps to disperse public housing throughout Yonkers. Pending appeal of the liability and remedial orders, the city failed and refused to take various required steps. Shortly after the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment in all respects, the parties agreed to a consent decree setting forth certain actions which the city would take to implement the remedial order, including the adoption, within 90 days, of a legislative package known as the Affordable Housing Ordinance. The decree was approved in a 5-to-2 vote by the city council -- which is vested with all of the city's legislative powers -- and entered by the District Court as a consent judgment in January 1988. When the city again delayed action, the District Court entered an order on July 26, 1988, requiring the city to enact the ordinance and providing that failure to do so would result in contempt citations, escalating daily fines for the city, and daily fines and imprisonment for recalcitrant individual council members. After a resolution of intent to adopt the ordinance was defeated by a 4-to-3 council vote, petitioner individual council members constituting the majority, the District Court held the city and petitioners in contempt and imposed the sanctions set forth in the July 26 order. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting, inter alia, petitioners' argument that the District Court had abused its discretion in sanctioning them. After this Court stayed the imposition of sanctions against the individual petitioners, but denied the city's request for a stay, the city council enacted the ordinance on September 9, 1988, in the face of daily fines approaching $1 million.
Was the district court’s order imposing contempt sanctions against individual city council members if they failed to vote in favor of housing ordinance proper?
The Court determined that the district court's order was an abuse of discretion under traditional equitable principles. The Court found that only the city, not the council members, were parties to the litigation and that the imposition of sanctions upon the legislatures was an extraordinary matter. The Court ruled that because the district court was required by equitable principles to exercise the least possible power adequate to the end proposed, it should have imposed sanctions upon the city first. Only if such sanctions were unsuccessful should the district court have even considered imposition of sanction upon the council members.