contempt of court

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Contempt of court refers to punishable conduct that disrupts or obstructs an official proceeding or order.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) Rule 70, a party that fails to perform a specific act, in accordance with a judgment by a court, can be charged with contempt and subsequently penalized. The purpose of recognizing contempt of court is to secure the dignity of the courts and the uninterrupted and unimpeded administration of justice

The power of federal courts to hold any person in their presence in contempt is codified in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 70 for civil contempt, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 42 for criminal contempt, and 18 U.S.C. § 401, which provides that “A court of the United States shall have power to punish by fine or imprisonment, or both, at its discretion, such contempt of its authority, and none other, as-- (1) Misbehavior of any person in its presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice; (2) Misbehavior of any of its officers in their official transactions; (3) Disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command.”

Direct and Indirect Contempt

Contempt of court can be classified as direct or indirect, with the distinction lying in where the disobedient conduct was performed. As seen in Hanson v. Superior Court; direct contempt of court is defined as an act of contempt committed knowingly in the immediate view and presence of the court. For example, failure to appear in compliance with a summons is direct contempt of court. Under FRCP Rule 37, a deponent's failure to answer can also be treated as contempt of court. Direct contempt of court is punishable without trial.

Indirect contempt of court is any contempt that does not fall within direct contempt. Indirect contempt is also referred to as "constructive” contempt. For example, failure to comply with probationary orders outside of the court is an indirect contempt of court. A person charged with indirect contempt must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard

Civil and Criminal Contempt 

Contempt of court can also be classified as either civil contempt or criminal contempt. Jurisdictions have articulated their distinctions differently, but the Supreme Court has held in Hicks v. Feiock (1988) that whether a contempt proceeding is criminal or civil depends on the substance of the proceeding and character of relief. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, if a court's purpose for finding contempt is to coerce the contemnor to comply with a court's order(s), then the charge will be one of civil contempt. However, if the court's purpose is to punish the contemnor for disobedience, then the charge will be one of criminal contempt. In New York on the other hand, the purpose of civil contempt is to protect parties' rights to litigation; any penalty imposed on the contemnor is meant to protect that right. Similarly, criminal contempt is used to protect the judicial system but is generally meant to recognize an offense against public justice as opposed to a litigant.

Procedure and Punishment

Classifying contempt is important as different categories of contempt carry different procedural safeguards and punishments. For example, in Michigan, an individual charged with criminal contempt is afforded some of the same rights as a criminal defendant. Among other things, they are presumed innocent, have 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, civil contempt penalties are conditional. One who is punished for civil contempt can avoid the punishment by doing as the court ordered and is therefore described as "carrying the keys of their prison in their own pocket." Punishments for criminal contempt, however, are generally unconditional and definite.

[Last updated in March of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]