Due Process Limitations on Contempt Power: Right to Jury Trial.

Originally, the right to a jury trial was not available in crimi- nal contempt cases.228 But the Court held in Cheff v. Schnackenberg,229 that a defendant is entitled to trial by jury when the punishment in a criminal contempt case in federal court is more than the sentence for a petty offense, traditionally six months. Although the ruling was made pursuant to the Supreme Court’s supervisory powers and was thus inapplicable to state courts and presumably subject to legislative revision, two years later the Court held that the Constitution also requires jury trials in criminal contempt cases in which the offense was more than a petty one.230 Whether an offense is petty or not is determined by the maximum sentence authorized by the legislature or, in the absence of a statute, by the sentence actually imposed. Again the Court drew the line between petty offenses and more serious ones at six months’ imprisonment. Although this case involved an indirect criminal contempt (willful petitioning to admit to probate a will known to be falsely prepared) the majority in dictum indicated that even in cases of direct contempt a jury will be required in appropriate instances. “When a serious contempt is at issue, considerations of efficiency must give way to the more fundamental interest of ensuring the even-handed exercise of judicial power.”231 Presumably, there is no equivalent right to a jury trial in civil contempt cases,232 although one could spend much more time in jail pursuant to a judgment of civil contempt than one could for most criminal contempts.233 The Court has, however, expanded the right to jury trials in federal civil cases on nonconstitutional grounds.234


See Green v. United States, 356 U.S. 165 (1958); United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964), and cases cited. The dissents of Justices Black and Douglas in those cases prepared the ground for the Court’s later reversal. On the issue, see Frankfurter and Landis, Power of Congress over Procedure in Criminal Contempts in ‘Inferior’ Federal Courts—A Study in Separation of Powers, 37 HARV. L. REV. 1010, 1042–1048 (1924). back
384 U.S. 373 (1966). back
Bloom v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 194 (1968). See also International Union, UMW v. Bagwell, 512 U.S. 821 (1994) (refining the test for when contempt citations are criminal and thus require jury trials). back
391 U.S. at 209. In Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U.S. 506 (1974), the Court held a jury trial to be required when the trial judge awaits the conclusion of the proceeding and then imposes separate contempt sentences in which the total aggregated more than six months even though no sentence for more than six months was imposed for any single act of contempt. For a tentative essay at defining a petty offense when a fine is levied, see Muniz v. Hoffman, 422 U.S. 454, 475–77 (1975). In International Union, UMW v. Bagwell, 512 U.S. 821, 837 n.5 (1994), the Court continued to reserve the question of the distinction between petty and serious contempt fines, because of the size of the fine in that case. back
The Sixth Amendment is applicable only to criminal cases and the Seventh to suits at common law, but the due process clause is available if needed. back
Note that under 28 U.S.C. § 1826 a recalcitrant witness before a grand jury may be imprisoned for the term of the grand jury, which can be 36 months. 18 U.S.C. § 3331(a). back
E.g., Beacon Theatres v. Westover, 359 U.S. 500 (1959); Dairy Queen v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469 (1962); Ross v. Bernhard, 396 U.S. 531 (1970). However, the Court’s expansion of jury trial rights may have halted with McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971). back