What Is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court, also referred to simply as “contempt,” is the disobedience of an order of a court. It is also conduct tending to obstruct or interfere with the orderly administration of justice. The purpose of recognizing contempt of court is to secure the dignity of the courts and the uninterrupted and unimpeded administration of justice. Contempt charges may be brought against parties to proceedings; lawyers or other court officers or personnel; jurors; witnesses; or people who insert themselves in a case, such as protesters outside a courtroom. Courts have great leeway in making contempt charges, and thus confusion sometimes exists about the distinctions between types of contempt. Generally, however, contempt proceedings are categorized as civil or criminal, and direct or indirect.

Direct and Indirect Contempt of Court

Contempt of court can be classified as direct or indirect (sometimes also referred to “constructive.”) The distinction lies in where the disobedient conduct was performed. A direct contempt is an act that occurs in the presence of the court and is intended to embarrass or engender disrespect for the court. Shouting in the courtroom or refusing to answer questions for a judge or attorney under oath is a direct contempt.

Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of the court, but its intention is also to belittle, mock, obstruct, interrupt, or degrade the court and its proceedings. Attempting to bribe a district attorney is an example of indirect contempt. Publishing any material that results in a contempt charge is an indirect contempt. Other kinds of indirect contempt include preventing process service, improperly communicating to or by jurors, and withholding evidence. One man was threatened with contempt charges because he had filed more than 350 lawsuits that the judge considered frivolous. Indirect contempt also may be called constructive or consequential contempt; all three terms mean the same thing.

Civil and Criminal Contempt of Court

Contempt of court can also be classified as civil contempt or criminal contempt. Jurisdictions have articulated their distinctions differently, but the Supreme Court has held that whether a contempt proceeding is criminal or civil depends on the substance of the proceeding and character of relief.

Civil contempt generally involves the failure to perform an act that is ordered by a court to enforce the rights of individuals or to secure remedies for parties in a civil action. For instance, parents who refuse to pay court-ordered child support may be held in contempt of court under civil contempt.

Criminal contempt involves behavior that assaults the dignity of the court or impairs the ability of the court to conduct its work. Criminal contempt can occur within a civil or criminal case. For example, criminal contempt occurs when a witness or spectator shouts or insults the judge during a trial. A civil contempt usually is a violation of the rights of one person, whereas a criminal contempt is an offense against society. Courts use civil contempt as a coercive power, wielding it only to ask that the contemnor comply with the courts’ actions. Criminal contempt is punitive; courts use it to punish parties who have impaired the courts’ functioning or bruised their dignity.

Procedure and Punishment

Classifying contempt is important as different categories of contempt carry different procedural safeguards and punishments. For example, an individual charged with criminal contempt is afforded some of the same rights as a criminal defendant. Among other things, he or she is presumed innocent, has the right against self-incrimination, and the contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, civil contempt requires only basic due process protections. As such, the individual need only be given notice and an opportunity to be heard, and the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence.

Punishments for contempt include imprisonment and fines. However, according to the Supreme Court, civil contempt penalties are conditional. One who is punished for civil contempt can avoid punishment by doing as the court ordered. Punishments for criminal contempt, however, are generally unconditional and definite.

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