contempt of court

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Contempt of court, also referred to simply as "contempt" is the disobedience of an order of a court. Additionally, conduct tending to obstruct or interfere with the orderly administration of justice also qualifies as contempt of court. 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. 

Direct and Indirect Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is classified as direct or indirect, sometimes also referred to "constructive”, with the distinction lying in where the disobedient conduct was performed. 

As seen in Hanson v. Superior Court, states may define direct contempt of court as an act of contempt committed knowingly in the immediate view and presence of the court. 

  • Failure to appear in compliance with a summons may be direct contempt of court.
  • Under Rule 37 of the FRCP, a deponent's failure to answer can also be treated as contempt of court.
  • Direct contempt of court is punishable without trial.

An indirect contempt of court is any contempt that does not fall within direct contempt.

  • 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 of Court

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 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, according to the Supreme Court, 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 July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team