The Confusing Conundrum of Contempt of Court

The courtroom is a location where citizens directly interact with the authority of government, represented by the judge. As illustrated by the recent Florida incident, judges have considerable but somewhat vague authority to maintain order, respect, and dignity for the judicial process. This broad inherent power dates from the unwritten English common law. Several competing public policies make "contempt of court" difficult to precisely define. Firstly, without order and decorum there can be no efficient or dignified administration of justice. Secondly, no official, such as a judge, should have unreviewable authority to determine, adjudicate, and punish violations of the law. Thirdly, what is a violation of law must be clearly defined as a fundamental aspect of due process. Combining these public policies into an appropriate standard of conduct is difficult.

At both the state and federal level there are contempt of court procedural rules. Some are written more generally than others. Further compounding the issue are subcategories of direct and indirect contempt, and civil and criminal contempt. Direct contempt appears in the presence of the court. Consequently, there are numerous cases involving obscene language in the courtroom that were punished by contempt. Indirect contempt is outside the presence of the court. This might involve, for example, disobeying an injunction or restraining order.

Civil contempt is designed to require compliance with an order of the court. It is said that the individual held in contempt "holds the keys" to the jail. Criminal contempt punishes past actions. Criminal contempt proceedings trigger a range of Constitutional protections that surround all criminal cases. The line between civil and criminal contempt is difficult to draw with the category assigned by the judge imposing the contempt sentence not being definitive. Additionally, the precise contours of punishment and the duration of the punishment is vague. The longer the contempt sentence becomes, the more likely it is criminal contempt. H. Beatty Chadwick was jailed for a record 14 years for civil contempt of court in connection with a divorce case.

Contempt of court proceedings are frequently used to enforce judicial orders to transfer assets or make financial payments, especially those child support obligations imposed by a divorce decree. Although being jailed for failure to make a financial payment may appear to be an imprisonment for debt, prohibited by state constitutions, the courts frequently state that an obligation to support a child is viewed as a legal duty and not as a debt.

Boards and other leadership groups may be found in contempt of court although this form of collective contempt is typically punished by a fine and not imprisonment. Contempt of court is a powerful remedy available to judges. For the most part, contempt of court is very much a function of context and the totality of circumstances. It is confusing because it is impossible to reduce to a precise formula. It is a conundrum because of the difficult balance that must be maintained between orderly justice and arbitrary judicial actions.