contempt of court, direct

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Direct contempt of court occurs when a party disobeys a court order in the presence of the court.  The party is under the inherent power the judicial officers possess to maintain respect, dignity, and order during proceeding. Judicial officers are not only Circuit Judges or Federal District Judges, but also may often be specially appointed commissioners or special masters

A judge may find anyone in their court - attorneys, parties, witnesses, and spectators - in civil or criminal direct contempt. 

  • If a judge determines that they wish to hold a party in direct contempt, they must first declare that they “find” the person in contempt. 
  • Once a person is found in contempt, the judge then adds a punishment term. 
  • The punishment is mainly a fine or confinement in jail for a brief period of time. 
    • Confinement is usually a day or two, but occasionally can be six months or more.

Punishment for direct contempt cannot be completely arbitrary. The judge must make a record about the conduct being punished, and the conduct must either be offensive or interfere with the proceeding. Conduct that shows direct disrespect for the court or the judge is sufficiently offensive. For example, courts have held that swearing at the judge in the courtroom is sufficient grounds for a direct contempt of court charge. 

  • Direct contempt of court is contrasted with indirect contempt of court, also known as constructive contempt.
    • Indirect contempt of court occurs when contempt charges are issued due to conduct outside of the courtroom. 

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]