Offenses Against the United States: Contempt of Court.

The President may pardon criminal but not civil contempts of court. The Court “point[ed] out that it is not the fact of punishment but rather its character and purpose that makes the difference between the two kinds of contempts. For civil contempts, the punishment is remedial and for the benefit of the complainant, and a pardon cannot stop it. For criminal contempts the sentence is punitive in the public interest to vindicate the authority of the court and to deter other like derelictions.”284 In upholding the President’s power to pardon criminal contempt, Chief Justice Taft, speaking for the Court, resorted once more to English conceptions as being authoritative in construing this clause of the Constitution. He wrote: “The King of England before our Revolution, in the exercise of his prerogative, had always exercised the power to pardon contempts of court, just as he did ordinary crimes and misdemeanors and as he has done to the present day. In the mind of a common law lawyer of the eighteenth century the word pardon included within its scope the ending by the King’s grace of the punishment of such derelictions, whether it was imposed by the court without a jury or upon indictment, for both forms of trial for contempts were had. [Citing cases.] These cases also show that, long before our Constitution, a distinction had been recognized at common law between the effect of the King’s pardon to wipe out the effect of a sentence for contempt in so far as it had been imposed to punish the contemnor for violating the dignity of the court and the King, in the public interest, and its inefficacy to halt or interfere with the remedial part of the court’s order necessary to secure the rights of the injured suitor. Blackstone IV, 285, 397, 398; Hawkins Pleas of the Crown, 6th Ed. (1787), Vol. 2, 553. The same distinction, nowadays referred to as the difference between civil and criminal contempts, is still maintained in English law.”285 Nor was any new or special danger to be apprehended from this view of the pardoning power. “If,” the Chief Justice asked, “we could conjure up in our minds a President willing to paralyze courts by pardoning all criminal contempts, why not a President ordering a general jail delivery?” Although, he added, “[t]he power of a court to protect itself and its usefulness by punishing contemnors is of course necessary,” in light of the fact that a court exercises this power “without the restraining influence of a jury and without many of the guaranties [sic] which the bill of rights offers[,] . . . [m]ay it not be fairly said that in order to avoid possible mistake, undue prejudice or needless severity, the chance of pardon should exist at least as much in favor of a person convicted by a judge without a jury as in favor of one convicted in a jury trial?”286

Footnotes

284
Ex parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 113 (1925). [Back to text]
285
267 U.S. at 110–11. [Back to text]
286
267 U.S. at 121, 122. [Back to text]