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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Prof'l Air Traffic Controllers Org. (PATCO) - 678 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1982)


The "void for vagueness" doctrine is a procedural due process concept which requires the giving of appropriate notice of a proscription before a person can be held accountable for its violation. Thus, a government regulation can neither forbid nor require the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application. Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(d) embodies this concept with regard to injunctions.


The United States petitioned the district court for a finding of civil contempt after three incidents in which the union president engaged in picketing activities in violation of the preliminary injunction. Following a hearing, the union president was found in civil contempt and fined $5,000. On appeal, the union president alleged that the preliminary injunction was unconstitutionally vague and that the imposition of the fine denoted a punitive purpose, which was impermissible in a civil proceeding.


  1. Was the preliminary injunction unconstitutionally vague?
  2. Did the imposition of the $5,000 fine have a punitive purpose?


1) No 2) Yes


The appellate court held that the preliminary injunction was not void of vagueness because it set forth the prescribed conduct as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(d).  According to the court, the term "picket" was not too vague and the union president should have known that it clearly included patrolling in front of the entrance to an employer's premises for the purpose of influencing the employees' conduct vis-a-vis an ongoing labor dispute. However, the court agreed that the fine was inappropriate as a civil sanction because it was not compensatory of any proved loss by the United States. The court held that the fine was unconditional, and far from being wholly remedial, was wholly punitive.

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