contempt of court, direct

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Direct contempt of court occurs when a person disobeys a court order in the presence of the court. The person is under the inherent power that the judicial officers possess to maintain respect, dignity, and order during a proceeding. Persons considered to be judicial officers are not limited to judges, and may also include specially appointed commissioners or special masters.

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 short, but occasionally can be six months or more. 

Direct contempt can be charged without separate proceedings, partly because it occurs in the view of the court, so the judge has personal knowledge of the essential elements of the offense and is in a position to evaluate the circumstances around the contempt. Summary proceedings on direct contempt are justified by the court’s interest in ensuring compliance and restoring order to the court proceedings.

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.

Kansas Statute §20-1203 allow direct contempt to “be punished summarily, without written accusation against the person arraigned, but if the court or judge in chambers shall adjudge him guilty thereof a judgment shall be entered of record” and requires specification of the conduct amounting to contempt and the defense offered.

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. 

Oklahoma Crimes and Punishment Statute §565 defines direct contempt as “disorderly or insolent behavior committed during the session of the court and in its immediate view, and presence, and the unlawful and willful refusal of any person to be sworn as a witness, and the refusal to answer any legal or proper question; and any breach of the peace, noise or disturbance, so near to it as to interrupt its proceedings.” In contrast, indirect contempt is defined in the same statute as “willful disobedience of any process or order lawfully issued or made by court; resistance willfully offered by any person to the execution of a lawful order or process of a court.”

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