What is contempt of court?

What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court is a legal term used to describe deliberate acts of disobedience or disrespect towards a court order or misconduct that occurs in the presence of a court.

This can include actions that interfere with the judge’s ability to administer justice or actions that insult the dignity of the court itself.

The consequences for being found guilty of contempt of court can include fines, imprisonment, or a combination of both.

It is important to note that there are two categories of contempt: civil contempt and criminal contempt, and the line between the two can sometimes be blurry.

Three people sitting in court infographic
Three people seated in court infographic – Image by storyset on Freepik

Contempt of Court – Civil or Criminal

Contempt of court can be categorized into two types: criminal contempt and civil contempt.

Criminal contempt occurs when the contemnor directly interferes with the functioning of the court, such as through disruptive behavior or disrespect towards the judge.

It is referred to as “direct contempt” because it happens in the immediate presence of the judge.

Punishments for criminal contempt can include fines, imprisonment, or both.

On the other hand, civil contempt arises when the contemnor willfully disobeys a court order.

This is known as “indirect contempt” because it occurs outside the immediate presence of the judge, requiring evidence to be presented to prove the contempt.

A civil contemnor may also face fines, imprisonment, or both.

The purpose of these penalties is to coerce compliance with the court order rather than to punish the individual.

Once the contemnor complies with the court order, they will typically be released from jail.

In family law cases, civil contempt can be used as a means to enforce orders related to alimony, child support, custody, and visitation when they have been violated.

However, it is important to note that in certain situations, particularly concerning procedural matters like the appointment of counsel, the line between civil and criminal contempt can be ambiguous and uncertain in many courts.

A Willful Disregard or Disobedience of a Public Authority

As per the Constitution of the United States, each house of Congress has the authority to establish its own rules and regulations for its proceedings.

This includes the power to discipline its members for disorderly behavior and, with a two-thirds majority, to expel a member. Similar provisions exist in the state constitutions.

The power to create rules also entails the power to enforce them and to punish individuals who violate them for contempt.

However, this power is limited to the duration of the legislative session and cannot extend beyond that period. Generally, the punishment for contempt in these cases is imprisonment.

Courts of justice possess an inherent power to punish individuals for contempt of their rules and orders, disobedience of their processes, and disruption of their proceedings.

In certain states, such as Pennsylvania, the power to punish for contempt is limited to offenses committed by court officers or in the presence of the court, or as a result of disobedience to the court’s mandates, orders, or rules.

However, no one can be held in contempt for any act or publication made outside the court that does not violate lawful rules or orders or constitute disobedience to the court’s processes.

Similar provisions that restrict the power of federal courts to punish for contempt are included in 28 U.S.C.

Once a person is imprisoned for contempt, it has been established in New York that another judge cannot discharge them when they are brought before them through a writ of habeas corpus.

Moreover, it is the sole authority of the offended court to determine and judge what constitutes contempt and its severity.

No other court or judge should interfere in a collateral manner to question or review a contempt adjudication made by another competent jurisdiction.

This principle is recognized in both England and America.