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Contempt of Court: What Does it Really Mean?

Posted by Jason Rapp | Oct 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

I get quite a few calls about the issue of contempt.  Several of these have been from colleagues who are aware that I have handled contempt matters through the Kentucky Court of Appeals.  Contempt may come up in a variety of circumstances.  The typical scenario is when a person is not following a court's orders.  There are actually different types of contempt and I will explain them below.  I hope you find this helpful and informative.  

Contempt may be either civil or criminal in nature.[1]  When the court's objective is to impose punishment, it undertakes criminal contempt proceedings.  “Criminal contempt is conduct ‘which amounts to an obstruction of justice, and which tends to bring the court into disrepute.'”  Commonwealth v. Burge, Ky., 947 S.W.2d 805, 808 (1996).

Criminal contempt has been further divided into two (2) subcategories--direct and indirect.  Direct criminal contempt occurs, “[i]n the presence of the court and is an affront to the dignity of the court.  It may be punished summarily by the court, and requires no fact-finding function, as all the elements of the offense are matters within the personal knowledge of the court.”  Id.(emphasis added).  Unlike direct criminal contempt, “[i]ndirect criminal contempt is committed outside the presence of the court and requires a hearing and the presentation of evidence to establish a violation of the court's order.  It may be punished only in proceedings that satisfy due process.”  Id.(emphasis added).   

Because ours is a system founded on due process considerations, courts have consistently taken a narrow and limiting view on when a summary adjudication is permissible.  As explained in In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 68 S.Ct. 499 (1948):

Except for a narrowly limited category of contempts, due process of law as explained in the Cooke case requires that one charged with contempt of court be advised of the charges against him, have a reasonable opportunity to meet them by way of defense or explanation, have the right to be represented by counsel, and have a chance to testify and call other witnesses in his behalf, either by way of defense or explanation. The narrow exception to these due process requirements includes only charges of misconduct, in open court, in the presence of the judge, which disturbs the court's business, where all of the essential elements of the misconduct are under the eye of the court, are actually observed by the court, and where immediate punishment is essential to prevent ‘demoralization of the court's authority  before the public.' If some essential elements of the offense are not personally observed by the judge, so that the [court] must depend upon statements made by others for his knowledge about these essential elements, due process requires, according to the Cooke case, that the accused be accorded notice and a fair hearing as above set out.

 Id. at pages 275, 276 of 333 U.S. 257, at pages 508, 509 of 68 S.Ct. 499 (emphasis added).  Further, “[t]he Court has been careful to limit strictly the exercise of the summary contempt power to cases in which it was clear that all the elements of misconduct were personally observed by the judge.”  Groppi v. Leslie, 404 U.S. 496, 504, 92 S.Ct. 582, 587 (1971).

This narrow view of a court's right to undertake summary proceedings, requiring the conduct to be directly observed by the court, is much like the holding in Commonwealth v. Burge which requires the court to have “personal knowledge” before initiating direct criminal contempt proceedings.  Burge, supra.  Finally, “In the case of criminal contempt, all elements, including willful disobedience, must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the accused has the right to a jury trial if the fine is ‘serious.'” Kentucky River Community Care , Inc. v. Stallard, 294 S.W.3d 29, 31-32 (Ky.App.2008)(citing Brockman v. Commonwealth, 185 S.W.3d 205, 208 (Ky.App.2005).  “In Brockman a fine of $825 satisfied the threshold of seriousness required to merit a jury trial.”  Id.

[1] Civil contempt will be discussed in a later post.  However, it generally means that you can get out of jail or escape sanction if you perform a certain activity, such as paying child support that is owed.  The known phrase when describing civil contempt is that, "the contemnor carries the keys to the jail in his own pocket."

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