Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that a federal judge acted hastily in imposing fines against individual members of the Yonkers, N.Y., city council when they refused in 1988 to adopt a housing plan needed to remedy unlawful racial segregation.
Writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said, “This sort of individual sanction effects a much greater perversion of the normal legislative process than does the imposition of sanctions on the city.”
Noting that U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand had also imposed fines against the city, Justice Rehnquist wrote, “Only if that approach failed to produce compliance within a reasonable time should the question of imposing contempt sanctions against (the city councilmen) even have been considered.”
The ruling came in three cases that had been consolidated for argument: Spallone v. United States, (Case No. 88-854); Chema v. United States, (No. 88-856); and Longo v. United States, (No. 88-870).
The cases involved four city councilmen who were fined $500 a day while they refused to adopt an ordinance to implement the housing plan.
The majority made it clear in its opinion that its decision was not to be construed as relieving the city council of its duty to implement the housing remedy.
But the majority did not use its decision to constrain severely the power of federal judges to enforce desegregation remedies, as some civil-rights activists had feared.
The Yonkers case was the first to expressly link discrimination in housing and education, as well as to seek separate remedies for both.
In a separate decision issued on the same day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Yonkers school district may proceed with a lawsuit against the state of New York.
The district is seeking monetary damages for state actions that it alleges contributed to racial segregation in the city’s schools.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 1990 edition of Education Week as In 5-4 Ruling, Court Voids Fines in Housing-Bias Suit