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U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights, etc., 487 U.S. 72 (1988)

United States Catholic Conference v.

Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc..

No. 87-416

Argued April 18, 1988

Decided June 20, 1988

487 U.S. 72


Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc., and others (ARM) filed suit against Government officials and petitioners, the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to revoke the Roman Catholic Church's tax-exempt status on the ground that the Church had violated the anti-electioneering provision of 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3). After petitioners were dismissed as parties, they refused to comply with ARM's subpoenas seeking extensive documentary evidence, and were held in contempt. The Court of Appeals affirmed the contempt citations, ruling that a nonparty witness' jurisdictional challenge is limited to a claim that the district court lacks even colorable jurisdiction, a standard not met here.

Held: A nonparty witness may defend against a civil contempt adjudication by challenging the district court's subject matter jurisdiction, and is not limited to the contention that the court lacked even colorable jurisdiction to hear the suit. Since a court's subpoena power cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction, the subpoenas it issues in aid of determining the merits are void if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying suit. Moreover, a nonparty witness has an unquestionable right to appeal a contempt adjudication, notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment in the underlying action. The contention that permitting a nonparty to challenge the court's jurisdiction would invite collusion, allowing parties to avoid restrictions on interlocutory appeals and to test jurisdiction by proxy, is not persuasive. Ample protections against collusive appeals exist in the courts of appeals' power to decline to treat the witness as a nonparty for purposes of the jurisdictional question, and in the usual provisions for sanctioning frivolous appeals or abuse of court processes. The rule followed in this case does not apply in criminal contempt proceedings, and does not affect a district court's inherent and legitimate authority to issue binding orders, including discovery orders, to nonparty witnesses, as necessary for the court to determine and rule upon its own jurisdiction, including subject matter jurisdiction. Here, however, the District Court's order was not issued to aid a jurisdictional inquiry, since the subpoenas were meant to obtain discovery on the merits, and before the contempt order the District

Page 487 U. S. 73

Court twice ruled that it had subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, on remand, the Court of Appeals must determine whether the District Court had such jurisdiction in the underlying action. If not, the subpoenas are void, and the contempt citation must be reversed. Pp. 487 U. S. 76-80.

824 F.2d 156, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 487 U. S. 80.

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