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High Court to Consider Case of Yonkers Fines : Will Hear Officials’ Claims That Judge Wrongly Punished Them in Dispute Over Desegregation

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to belatedly enter last summer’s bitter Yonkers, N.Y., desegregation dispute, in which city officials claim that a federal judge used fines to punish them for representing the voters who elected them.

The Yonkers case began in 1985, when Judge Leonard Sand found the city guilty of segregating its public housing. City officials initially agreed to remedy that problem by building public housing in some of its nearly all-white neighborhoods. But that plan encountered stiff community opposition, prompting four members of the city council to change their minds and refuse to vote to implement it.

When Sand and council members deadlocked over compliance with court desegregation orders, the exasperated judge decided on Aug. 2, 1988, that the four council members “shall each be personally fined $500 per day every day until such time” as they changed their votes. He gave them eight days to comply or face arrest and jail. He also imposed a large, escalating fine against the city.

Call Fines Unconstitutional

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Yonkers officials insist that they had no choice but to vote as their constituents wished. They argue that the $3,500 fines Sand levied against each of them are unconstitutional (Spallone, Chema, Longo vs. United States, 88-854).

Though the justices on Monday denied the city appeal of its $819,000 contempt fine (Yonkers vs. United States, 88-855), they agreed to consider the council members’ claims.

The case raises “the question of whether an elected official has a right to vote his conscience without fear of judicial reprisals in the form of fines or incarceration,” Lawrence Sykes, an attorney for Yonkers council members Nicholas Longo and Edward Fagan told the court. Legislators have a right to perform official duties “with absolute immunity,” he said.

But U.S. attorneys maintained that Yonkers officials, “under the guise of legislative immunity,” are seeking the right to “open defiance of a federal court decree. This claim far exceeds the bounds of the doctrine of legislative immunity.”

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The Yonkers case is not the only current one testing the limits of judicial powers, particularly in the use of civil contempt orders.

Justices also potentially could consider a highly publicized civil contempt order that has kept Dr. Elizabeth Morgan jailed since August, 1987. As part of her divorce, she has refused to disclose to a District of Columbia judge where her daughter is living, claiming that she fears a judge will grant her former husband visitation rights with the child, whom he then will molest. The husband has said that there is no truth in Morgan’s assertions, which were the subject of court hearings. After finding her claims baseless, the judge ordered her to say where her daughter is or face contempt of court charges and jail. Morgan remains in jail.

Before adjourning for a two-week recess, the court also:

--Rejected the argument that students have a constitutional right to be protected against severe paddlings (Cunningham vs. Beavers, 88-1181). The justices previously have said that prisoners’ rights are violated by excessive punishment but they have not extended that right to students. Without comment, the court dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Texas kindergartners said to be “snickering” in the halls. They were badly bruised in a subsequent paddling by a principal.

--Let stand a $90,000 libel judgment against six Korean-language newspapers in the New York area for printing a South Korean government accusation that an American student was a North Korean spy. In general, news organizations are immune from libel judgments if they accurately report statements by government officials. But a federal appeals court in Richmond ruled last year that this immunity does not cover statements by foreign governments (The Dong-A Ilbo vs. Lee, 88-1145).

--Refused an appeal by officials of Northeastern states to force the Environmental Protection Agency to impose tighter pollution limits on Midwestern states (Maine vs. EPA, 88-684). The Northeastern states blame part of their pollution problems on their Midwestern neighbors, though EPA officials say that they do not have enough evidence to act. The lower courts said that they would not “second guess” the EPA’s scientific judgment.


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