Can an individual constitutionally bring a cause of action for criminal contempt against another individual?
In March of 1999, Respondent Wykenna Watson obtained a civil protection order (“CPO”) against Petitioner John Robertson, alleging Robertson attacked her in March 1999. In June of 1999, Robertson violated his CPO when he attacked Watson again. In a plea bargain with the United States Attorney’s Office, Robertson agreed to plead guilty to attempted aggravated assault for the March incident in return for the United States’ agreement not to pursue two other charges arising from the June incident. Afterwards, Watson brought a criminal contempt action against Robertson, alleging that the June incident violated the CPO. The trial court convicted Robertson of three violations of his CPO, and Robertson subsequently petitioned to have his convictions vacated. Robertson argued that Watson’s criminal contempt action violated his plea bargain with the United States because criminal contempt proceedings are necessarily brought on behalf of the United States. In this case, the Supreme Court’s decision may alter criminal contempt proceedings in the face of plea bargains and affect the balance of power between the branches of government.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether an action for criminal contempt in a congressionally created court may constitutionally be brought in the name and pursuant to the power of a private person, rather than in the name and pursuant to the power of the United States.
In March 1999, Respondent Wykenna Watson obtained a temporary protection order in the Family Division of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Petitioner John Robertson. In re Robertson, 940 A.2d 1050, 1052 (D.C. 2008). Watson alleged that, on March 27, 1999, Robertson had “repeatedly pursued and hit her on various parts of her body . . . kicked her several times in the head with his heavy work shoes; and threatened to kill her while holding a pocket knife.” Id.The Attorney General for the District of Columbia subsequently obtained a twelve-month civil protection order (“CPO”) for Watson. See Id. at 1053. Robertson violated the CPO in June of 1999 where he called Watson names, pushed her into a wall, physically attacked her, and threw lye onto her. See Id.
Robertson was charged with one count of aggravated assault for the March incident against Watson. See In re Robertson, 940 A.2d at 1053. In a plea bargain with the United States Attorney’s Office, Robertson agreed to plead guilty to attempted aggravated assault for the March incident in return for dropping two other charges against Robertson for the June incident. See Id.
Afterwards, Watson independently brought suit against Robertson, alleging criminal contempt for violating the CPO in the June incident. See In re Robertson, 940 A.2d at 1053. In this proceeding, the trial court found Robertson guilty of three counts of violating the CPO and sentenced him to three consecutive 180-day jail terms. See Id. at 1054. Robertson subsequently filed a motion to vacate these convictions, arguing that the contempt proceeding initiated by Watson had violated his previous plea bargain with the United States. See Id.The trial court found that the plea bargain between Robertson and the United States was binding only on the government and did not prevent Watson from bringing a contempt proceeding against Robertson. See Id.
On appeal in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Robertson argued that the United States, not Watson, was “the true party-in-interest” in the contempt proceeding initiated by Watson because the contempt proceeding was a “criminal action,” and thus could only be brought on behalf of the government. See In re Robertson, 940 A.2d at 1055, 57. Robertson further reasoned that, because the contempt proceeding had in fact been brought by the United States, the contempt proceeding therefore violated his plea bargain with the United States. See Id. at 1055. However, the appeals court agreed with the United States’ argument that District of Columbia law permitted Watson to initiate a criminal contempt proceeding against Robertson in her own name and for her own interest. See Id. at 1057–58.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a criminal contempt proceeding may be initiated by individuals under their own names and for their own interests. See Question Presented at 1.
This case turns on whether an action for criminal contempt must be brought in the name of a private person as opposed to in the name of the sovereign power of the United States. Contempt actions can be either civil or criminal. Actions for civil contempt are those to enforce rights of private parties, while actions for criminal contempt are those meant to punish violations of court orders. See Brief for Petitioner, John Robertson, at 37–38. Actions for criminal contempt are punishable by fine or imprisonment (as in this case where Robertson was sentenced to imprisonment). See Id. at 36.
Petitioner John Robertson argues that all criminal prosecutions, including actions for criminal contempt, must be brought by the sovereign because of the long-standing principle that crimes are public wrongs against the public good. See Brief for Petitioner at 15–16. Robertson points out that the sovereign has historically brought criminal prosecutions. See Id. at 18. Robertson emphasizes that the Constitution focuses on the power to prosecute and punish crimes, providing clear evidence of the Founders’ belief that criminal prosecutions could only be brought in the name of the government. See Id. at 27. Robertson contends that this principle has also been echoed in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. See Id. at 30. Robertson further notes that the Court has repeatedly stated that a private person has no judicially recognizable interest in criminal prosecutions. See Id. at 34.
Respondent Wykenna Watson maintains that there is no constitutional or common law requirement that either criminal or criminal contempt proceedings must be brought in the name of the sovereign. See Brief for Respondent, Wykenna Watson, at 17–18. Watson asserts that, contrary to Robertson’s argument, it was a common practice for private persons to serve as prosecutors of a crime. See Id. at 38–39. Indeed, Watson emphasizes that it is still an accepted practice in several states to allow private criminal prosecutions. See Id. at 41.
Robertson contends that criminal contempt should be treated as any other crime and treated as a public wrong. See Brief for Petitioner at 36. Robertson insists that actions for criminal contempt, in particular, should only be brought by the government because of the nature of criminal contempt as a crime against the dignity and authority of the courts. See Id. at 37. The incidental benefit that a private person will receive from an action for criminal contempt that enforces a private order, such as the one at issue here, is not a reason to change the fundamental principle that prosecution must be on behalf of the government. See Id. at 39. Robertson underscores the fact that the Supreme Court has previously held that one main consideration in whether an action is civil or criminal is the penalty imposed and in this case, Robertson’s imprisonment punishment was unambiguously criminal. See Id. at 41–42. Robertson points to the Court’s decisions clarifying that the party to a criminal contempt prosecution in federal court is the United States, regardless of whether the case is privately prosecuted. See Id. at 43.
In contrast, Watson argues that criminal contempt has never been considered an actual “crime” as referred to in the Constitution because contempt was a petty offense while “crimes” were defined as those involving more serious offenses. See Brief for Respondent at 23–24. Watson emphasizes a series of cases in which the Court has recognized that criminal contempt proceedings differ from ordinary criminal cases in several significant ways regarding the procedures by which contempt cases may be handled by courts. See Id. at 26–27. Watson also points to the fact that many state courts have held that actions for criminal contempt do not need to be brought in the name of the sovereign. See Id. at 28–29. Watson also asserts that there is nothing in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence that dictates that actions for criminal contempt must always be brought in the name of a sovereign. See Id. at 32.
Robertson maintains that criminal contempt is rooted in the doctrine of necessity, allowing a court’s limited intrusion on the separation of powers only as much as is necessary to give courts power to compel obedience to their mandates. See Brief for Petitioner at 13. However, Robertson insists that the doctrine of necessity does not cover criminal contempt actions brought by a private person. SeeId. at 46–47. Robertson argues that the intrusion into the separation of powers entailed in a contempt proceeding, as well as the lower requirements for due process, is only justified by the doctrine of necessity. See Id. at 47. According to Robertson, a prosecution for criminal contempt intrudes on the separation of powers in two ways. See Id. at 48. First, it allows for judicial encroachment on the legislative power. See Id. Second, it allows judicial encroachment into the Executive’s powers because the courts would have the power to prosecute contempt even when the Executive chooses not to. See Id. Robertson also contends that the doctrine of necessity limits the contempt power, giving the courts discretion so that the courts do not intrude on the Executive function more than necessary. See Id. at 49. In this case, Robertson emphasizes that Watson’s private decision to prosecute was not limited by either necessity or the principle of restraint. See Id. at 51.
Watson insists that, as the constitutional issues of separation of powers or due process were not properly presented to the lower court, they should not properly be considered by the Supreme Court. See Brief for Respondent at 50. Watson also asserts that separation of powers principles were intended only to apply to the branches of the federal government and, therefore, do not apply to the District of Columbia. See Id. at 52. Instead, Watson emphasizes, Congress is given the exclusive authority of government over the District, which encompasses both the executive and judicial powers, as well as the legislative. See Id. at 53. Even so, however, Watson maintains that separation of powers would not require criminal contempt actions to be brought in the sovereign’s name. See Id. at 55. Watson points to the fact that the Court has previously held that a private contempt prosecutor does not encroach on the executive branch because the court’s power in a contempt case is necessarily limited only to those parties that have appeared before it. See Id. at 56. Furthermore, Watson underscores that the Executive authority over prosecutions is not unlimited because of the Grand Jury clause of the Constitution as well as other limitations on the Executive’s discretion dictated by Congress. See Id. at 56–58.
Robertson also argues that due process requires that criminal contempt proceedings only be brought by the government. See Brief for Petitioner at 57. Robertson maintains that the fact that the prosecutor represents the sovereign is particularly important in ensuring that the prosecutor have an interest not in the immediate outcome so much as that justice be done. See Id. at 57–58. Robertson emphasizes that due process requires that prosecutors serve the public interest due to the fact that prosecutors have the power to deprive people of their constitutional rights. See Id. at 58. Robertson insists that neither due process nor the public interest is served if the party bringing the criminal action is not controlled by the government and there is no justification that might otherwise permit a criminal action to be brought by a private person. See Id. at 59.
Watson, on the other hand, maintains that there is no due process requirement that actions for criminal contempt be brought in the name of the sovereign. See Brief for Respondent at 58–59. Watson asserts that Robertson received the full range of procedural rights required by due process and, moreover, that Robertson has no due process right to be prosecuted by the government in a criminal contempt case. See Id. at 59–60. Furthermore, Watson emphasizes that the Supreme Court has already held that a contempt prosecution does not have to be controlled by the government. See Id. at 61.
In this case, Petitioner John Robertson argues that criminal contempt is a “crime in the ordinary sense,” and, therefore, the criminal contempt proceeding brought against him was necessarily brought on behalf of, and in the interest of, the United States. See Brief for Petitioner, John Robertson, at 11–12. However, Respondent Wykenna Watson argues that an individual, like Wykenna Watson, may bring a criminal contempt proceeding on behalf of and in the interest of herself. Here, the Supreme Court’s decision may change the law regarding criminal contempt proceedings and shift the balance of power between the courts, the legislature, and the executive branch of government.
First, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) argues that, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the United States, it would overturn the century-long legal principle establishing criminal contempt prosecutions as crimes prosecuted on behalf of the government. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Support of Petitioner at 3. According to the NACDL, state supreme courts have agreed that criminal contempt proceedings are brought on behalf of the government. Furthermore, NACDL claims that, even in the states where an individual is allowed to initiate a criminal contempt proceeding, the proceeding is nevertheless deemed to be brought on behalf of the government. See Id. at 5–6.
However, Watson argues that the law regarding whether criminal contempt prosecutions must be brought on behalf of the government is “not harmonious.” See Brief for Respondent, Wykenna Watson, at 28. Indeed, Watson notes that the supreme courts of several states, including Illinois, Indiana, California, and Pennsylvania have expressly stated that criminal contempt prosecutions need not be brought on behalf of the government. See Id. at 28–29.
Moreover, Robertson claims that a Supreme Court decision in favor of the United States would intrude upon the balance of powers between the courts, the legislature, and the executive branch. See Brief for Petitioner at 48. According to Robertson, the doctrine of criminal contempt is an intrusion upon legislative and executive powers that is only tolerated because courts “must be vested with ‘power to impose silence, respect, and decorum, in their presence, and submission to their lawful mandates.’“ See Id. at 46. For example, Robertson claims that the doctrine of criminal contempt intrudes upon executive powers because the “Executive Branch traditionally has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether and how to prosecute a case.” See Id. at 48. Thus, when a court enforces a mandate through the doctrine of contempt, the court is essentially usurping this power. See Id. at 48–49. Robertson argues that allowing an individual to initiate criminal contempt proceedings would upset the existing balance of powers because individuals are not subject to the same restraints as the courts. See Id. at 51, 54.
Nevertheless, Watson argues that allowing private individuals to bring criminal contempt actions would not upset the balance of powers between the branches of government. According to Watson, the executive branch does not have “exclusive authority and absolute discretion” regarding prosecution of cases. See Brief for Respondent at 55. As Watson explains, the executive branch shares the power to decide whether to prosecute a crime with grand juries, and Congress also places limits upon whether the executive branch can prosecute a particular crime. See Id. at 57. Watson argues that, if the balance of powers between government branches is not upset by divesting the executive branch of these powers, then allowing private individuals to bring criminal contempt actions would similarly not present a balance of powers issue. See Id. at 56.
This case hinges on the question of whether a private person can bring an action for criminal contempt or if actions for criminal contempt must be brought by the government. John Robertson argues that criminal contempt should be treated as any other crime, requiring a prosecution to be brought by the government. Wykenna Watson contends that nothing in the Constitution or the common law of crimes requires that an action for criminal contempt must be brought in the name of the sovereign. This case will affect the law on actions for criminal contempt as well as having an effect on the separation of powers doctrine.