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An act of deliberate disobedience or disregard for the laws, regulations, or decorum of a public authority, such as a court or legislative body.
Individuals may be cited for contempt when they disobey an order, fail to comply with a request, tamper with documents, withhold evidence, interrupt proceedings through their actions or words, or otherwise defy a public authority or hold it up to ridicule and disrespect. The laws and rules governing contempt have developed in a piecemeal fashion over time and give wide discretion to judges and legislative leaders in determining both what constitutes contempt and how it is punished.
Contempt of Court
Contempt of court is behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the court. Contempt charges may be brought against parties to proceedings; lawyers or other court officers or personnel; jurors; witnesses; or people who insert themselves in a case, such as protesters outside a courtroom. Courts have great leeway in making contempt charges, and thus confusion sometimes exists about the distinctions between types of contempt. Generally, however, contempt proceedings are categorized as civil or criminal, and direct or indirect.
Civil contempt generally involves the failure to perform an act that is ordered by a court as a means to enforce the rights of individuals or to secure remedies for parties in a civil action. For instance, parents who refuse to pay court-ordered child support may be held in contempt of court under civil contempt. Criminal contempt involves behavior that assaults the dignity of the court or impairs the ability of the court to conduct its work. Criminal contempt can occur within a civil or criminal case. For example, criminal contempt occurs when a witness or spectator shouts or insults the judge during a trial. A civil contempt usually is a violation of the rights of one person, whereas a criminal contempt is an offense against society. Courts use civil contempt as a coercive power, wielding it only to ask that the contemnor comply with the courts' actions. Criminal contempt is punitive; courts use it to punish parties who have impaired the courts' functioning or bruised their dignity.
A direct contempt is an act that occurs in the presence of the court and is intended to embarrass or engender disrespect for the court. Shouting in the courtroom or refusing to answer questions for a judge or attorney under oath is a direct contempt. Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of the court, but its intention is also to belittle, mock, obstruct, interrupt, or degrade the court and its proceedings. Attempting to bribe a district attorney is an example of an indirect contempt. Publishing any material that results in a contempt charge is an indirect contempt. Other kinds of indirect contempt include preventing process service, improperly communicating to or by jurors, and withholding evidence. One man was threatened with contempt charges because he had filed more than 350 lawsuits that the judge considered frivolous. Indirect contempt also may be called constructive or consequential contempt; all three terms mean the same thing.
The essence of contempt of court is that the misconduct impairs the fair and efficient administration of justice. Contempt statutes generally require that the actions present a clear and present danger that threatens the administration of justice.
The manner in which an act is committed or the tone in which words are spoken can determine whether contempt has occurred. Circumstances, such as the context in which the words were spoken, the tone, the facial expression, the manner, and the emphasis, are also evaluated by the court. Failure to complete an act that, if completed, would tend to bring the court into disrespect does not preclude the act from being contemptuous.
Criticisms of the Contempt-of-Court Power
The discretion permitted to judges in determining what is contempt and how to punish it has led some legal scholars to argue that the contempt power gives too much authority to judges. Earl C. Dudley, University of Virginia law professor, wrote that in the contempt power, "the roles of victim, prosecutor and judge are dangerously commingled."
Much of the criticism focuses on the lack of restraint or due process in determining punishments for contempt. In criminal contempt, the contempt charges become a separate matter, but they may be heard by the judge who made them. In addition, the same judge may commence punishment immediately, and the punishment may be in effect until the contempt case is settled. Critics have argued that judges—who are the principal offended party—may be too harsh. For instance, in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision by a Virginia judge who had fined the United Mine Workers of America $52 million in connection with violence that occurred during a 1989 strike. The High Court stated that the fines were excessive and improperly imposed because the union had never had a chance to defend itself in a trial before the fines were imposed.
Similarly, individuals who have refused to provide courts with information have been held in jail—sometimes for years—under contempt charges. In Maryland, a woman involved in a custody battle with her ex-husband refused to reveal the whereabouts of her child. Elizabeth Morgan spent 25 months in jail before her ex-husband dropped the custody case and it was revealed that the child was staying with Morgan's parents in New Zealand. Journalist Myron Farber, of the New York Times, spent more than three years in jail for refusing to turn over notes that prosecutors sought for a murder trial.
Judges and scholars have defended the practices of indefinite jail time because the contemnor "carries the keys to his prison in his own pocket" and can be released by complying with the court (In re Nevitt, 117 F. 448 [8th Cir. 1902]).
Civil contempt proceedings end when the suit from which they arose is resolved. Criminal contempt continues as a separate matter. Settlements may involve jail time, fines, or other retribution. For instance, when the Cable News Network (CNN) was found guilty of contempt of court for airing audiotapes related to the trial of Manuel Noriega, the deposed president of Panama, the network was given the choice of airing a retraction and an apology for using the tapes or paying a large fine. The network made the apology.
Contempt of Congress
The Constitution does not explicitly grant Congress the power to coerce cooperation from individuals or to punish acts of disobedience or disrespect through contempt proceedings. However, the power was discussed at the Constitutional Convention and was implied in the Constitution. In 1795, Congress used the power of contempt for the first time when it arrested, tried, and punished a man accused of bribing members of the House of Representatives. Then Congress acted on its own authority—subsequently called the self-help power, which grants Congress the right to compel testimony and punish disobedience without the involvement of a court or other government body if the individual's actions obstruct the legislative process. By 1821, the Supreme Court recognized Congress's power to arrest and punish individuals for contempt. In 1857, Congress created a statute governing prosecution for contempt, which shifted the responsibility for determining contempt from Congress
itself to the courts. Until 1945, Congress largely ignored this criminal statute and continued to compel testimony and deal with contemnors through its own power.
In the late twentieth century, the Supreme Court noted, "Congress has practically abandoned its original practice of utilizing the coercive (self-help) sanction of contempt proceedings at the bar of the House" (Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 77 S. Ct. 1173, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1273). Under the criminal statute, Congress must petition the U.S. attorney to bring a case of possible contempt before a grand jury. The case is then tried in federal court.
Most contempt citations arise from Congress's investigatory powers. In its decisions since world war ii, the Supreme Court has outlined requirements that Congress must meet before it can compel testimony. The investigation must have a valid legislative purpose. It must be conducted by a committee or subcommittee of the House of Representatives or Senate, or the authority of the investigating body must be clearly defined in a resolution. The questions asked of witnesses must be pertinent to the subject of inquiry. Contempt proceedings cannot be used to harass an individual or organization. Finally, before individuals can be held in contempt, they must willfully default, either by failing to appear before the investigating body or by refusing to answer pertinent questions.
Congress's contempt power has come into conflict with the First Amendment in several cases. The first of these cases was Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109, 79 S. Ct. 1081, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1115 (1959), in which Lloyd Barenblatt refused to answer five questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, regarding Communist infiltration of educational institutions. Barenblatt was convicted of contempt then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the questions violated his First Amendment right to freedom of association. The Court, in a 5–4 decision, supported Barenblatt. The Court stated that the questions were too vague to support a contempt citation and that Congress's investigative powers must be balanced against First Amendment rights.
The conflict between Congress's investigative powers and the First Amendment surfaced again in 1992 when Nina Totenberg, a National Public Radio correspondent, refused to answer questions of a Senate special counsel about how she obtained confidential documents related to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Totenberg had earlier revealed that the Senate Judiciary Committee was looking into accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed members of his staff. The charges led to public testimony by law professor Anita Hill. A Senate special counsel asked to have Totenberg held in contempt when she refused to reveal who leaked information about the charges to her. The request was denied by the Senate Rules Committee because of its potential "chilling effect on the media."
Congress also has used the contempt power in conflicts with private parties and the executive branch of government. For instance, business partners of Ferdinand Marcos, former president of the Philippines, produced documents for the House Foreign Affairs Committee only under threat of contempt citations. And James G. Watt, former secretary of the interior, was charged with contempt by a congressional committee in the early 1980s when, citing executive privilege, he refused to release Interior Department documents.
Contempt Proceedings against President Clinton
On April 12, 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton became the first sitting president in United States history to be held in contempt of court. The contempt charge against President Clinton stemmed from a deposition he gave in connection with a 1994 sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. Jones v. Clinton, 858 F. Supp. 902 (E.D. Ark. 1994). Jones alleged that on May 8, 1991, she was an Arkansas state employee working at a conference held at a hotel in Little Rock. At some point during the conference, Jones claimed she was escorted to a hotel room by one of Clinton's bodyguards, where she was introduced to the then-governor. Shortly after the introduction, Jones alleged that Clinton dropped his trousers and demanded oral sex from her. Jones said that though she refused and was allowed to leave, her career as a state government employee suffered thereafter.
The Jones lawsuit languished in pre-trial discovery for the first three years after it was filed. On January 17, 1998, Jones and her lawyers deposed Clinton, who was now serving his second term as president of the United States. During the deposition, Clinton was asked a series of questions about his relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The president testified that he was never alone with the former White House intern and did not have a sexual relationship with her.
A subsequent probe by independent counsel Kenneth Starr revealed that the president's DNA had been found on Lewinsky's dress, which eventually led Clinton to admit that he had an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with his former intern (Jones v. Clinton, 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999). The discovery of the dress also fueled the House of Representatives to draft articles of impeachment against the president.
A month after giving the deposition, Clinton filed a motion to dismiss the Jones lawsuit. On April 1, 1998, United States District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted the motion to dismiss, finding that Jones had "failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury." Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998). While the case was pending on appeal, Clinton and Jones settled the sexual harassment lawsuit for $850,000.
A year later Judge Wright addressed the issue whether President Clinton should be held in contempt for denying his relationship with Lewinsky during the January 1998 deposition. At the time he gave the deposition, there was very little evidence indicating that the president's testimony was false. But in the 14 months that followed, it became clear that the president had not only been alone with Monica Lewinsky but also had some form of sexual relations with her.
Accordingly, Judge Wright found the president in contempt for giving "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process" at a deposition over which she personally presided. Jones v. Clinton, 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999). Although Clinton maintained that his "inti-mate" relationship with Lewinsky did not constitute "sexual" relations, Wright said that it is difficult to construe "the president's sworn statements … as anything other than a willful refusal to obey this court's discovery orders." Jones v. Clinton 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999).
In July 1998, Wright leveled a $90,686 fine against the president. Wright said regarding this case that the fine was intended to both punish Clinton for the contempt violation and also "to deter others who might consider emulating the president's misconduct."
Wright then referred the matter to the Arkansas Supreme Court to determine whether the president should lose his license to practice law in that state. In May 1999 the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct recommended that Clinton be disbarred. However, on January 19, 2001, his last day in office, President Clinton resolved the case before the state ethics committee by agreeing to surrender his law license for a period of five years and admitting, according to Pete Yost in an AP Online report, that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in violation of Arkansas rules governing attorney ethics. Additionally, Clinton agreed to pay a $25,000 fine.
Alderman, Ellen, and Caroline Kennedy. 1991. In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action. New York: Morrow.
Beck, Carl. 1959. Contempt of Congress: A Study of the Prosecutions Initiated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945–1957. Hauser Press.
Dudley, Earl C. 1993. "Getting Beyond the Civil/Criminal Distinction: A New Approach to the Regulation of Indirect Contempts." Virginia Law Review 79.
Goldfarb, Ronald L. 1963. The Contempt Power. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Mangan, James J. 1994." Contempt for the Fourth Estate: No Reporter's Privilege Before a Congressional Investigation." Georgetown Law Journal 83.
Yost, Pete. January 20, 2001. "Clinton Admits False Statements." AP Online.