Contempt of Court

Ever wonder how a judge gets people to play nice?

Michael W. Flynn
4-minute read


First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.   

Today I will discuss contempt of court. Steve wrote:

Could you please explain how a judge can have someone imprisoned for contempt of court and not consider this a violation of the right to due process or unlawful imprisonment? Also, if someone is jailed for contempt of court how can they be held for an unspecified length of time, potentially years, without this being cruel and unusual punishment? After all, a person who is actually convicted of a crime after a fair trial could spend less time in jail than a person found in contempt.

The short answer is that a person facing imprisonment for contempt of court has likely received full due process of the law. Most people that face contempt charges have been fully advised on several occasions as to the consequences of their actions. 

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Contempt of court refers generally to any willful disobedience to, or disregard of, a court order or any misconduct in the presence of a court or action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court, and is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. A judge who feels someone is improperly challenging or ignoring the court's authority has the power to declare the defiant person (called the contemnor) in contempt of court.

The contemnor is said to "hold the keys" to his own cell, so strict adherence to all due process requirements is not necessary.

There are two types of contempt — civil and criminal. Criminal contempt occurs when the contemnor actually interferes with the ability of the court to function properly — for example, by yelling at the judge. This is also called direct contempt because it occurs directly in front of the judge. A criminal contemnor may be fined, jailed, or both as punishment for his act.

Civil contempt occurs when the contemnor willfully disobeys a court order. This is also called indirect contempt because it occurs outside the judge's immediate realm and evidence must be presented to the judge to prove the contempt. A civil contemnor, too, may be fined, jailed, or both. The fine or jailing is meant to coerce the contemnor into obeying the court, not to punish him, and the contemnor will be released from jail as soon as he complies with the court order.

In family law, civil contempt is one way a court enforces alimony, child support, custody, and visitation orders that have been violated.

With regard to notions of due process, contempt of court proceedings comport with due process. Very generally, to comply with due process requirements under the Constitution, a person must be told what charges or allegations are facing him, and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard and present evidence on his behalf. With regard to civil contempt proceedings, this is not really a problem because the person has already been ordered to do something, and has willfully refused to comply. That is, the person against whom the order was entered already had his opportunity to be heard on the issue. For example, if the contemnor has failed to pay proper alimony payments, he already had the opportunity to present evidence as to why he should not have to pay, or pay as much as the court required. 

Further, the sanction for contempt is limited in its imposition for so long as the disobedience to the court's order continues; once the party complies with the court's order, the sanction is lifted. The contemnor is said to "hold the keys" to his own cell, so strict adherence to all due process requirements is not necessary.

Constitution 101: The Judicial Branch

With regard to criminal contempt, the contemnor will usually be given his opportunity to be heard after the fact, but still gets his opportunity to be heard.

Recall that criminal contempt is more often imposed because the contemnor is actively disrupting court proceedings, and incarceration is needed for safety and the proper functioning of a court.

Steve also asked how a person who spends an unspecified period of time in jail for contempt is not being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Without getting into the nitty gritty of Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment jurisprudence, it is enough to say that the punishment is properly tailored to bring the contemnor into compliance with a court order or to calm him down. Punishment is cruel and unusual where it lacks any nexus between the punishment and the crime. The punishment, keeping someone in jail for as long as necessary to bring him into compliance with a court order, is directly linked to the contemnor’s willful failure to comply with that order.

Thank you for listening to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. Be sure to check out all the excellent Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts. 

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