Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Contempt Powers Help Courts Function

Q:       I was watching the Big Bang Theory on TV, and Sheldon was sent to jail for contempt of court because he insulted the judge. Can a person really be jailed for insulting a judge?
A:        Yes. Courts have inherent power to penalize a person for “contempt of court,” and even send that person to jail. The intent of the “contempt” law is to uphold and ensure the effective administration of justice, secure the dignity of the court and affirm the supremacy of law. A court without contempt powers would be unable to perform its proper functions.    

Q:       Before being jailed for contempt, would Sheldon (or anyone) have a right to know the charges against him, or to have an attorney or a trial?
A:        No. When Sheldon insulted the judge, the court could not continue with its business, which interfered with the administration of justice. Because the judge directly experienced Sheldon’s contemptuous conduct, he could find Sheldon in “direct summary contempt.” The rationale behind summary contempt is that a trial is not needed because the court has directly experienced the contemptuous act and because the court must be able to act immediately to prevent a person from disrupting the court’s business.

Q:       The judge would only release Sheldon from jail if he apologized to the court. Can a court really force a person to apologize by holding him in jail?
A:        Yes. When a judge sentences a person to jail until he or she performs an act ordered by the court, that person is said to “have the key to the jailhouse door.” This means that the jailed person can be released once he or she has followed the court’s order. 

Q:       Could the judge have ordered Sheldon to pay a fine instead of sentencing him to jail?
A:        Yes. Many courts punish contempt of court by ordering the person to pay a fine for contemptuous conduct.

Q:           What is the difference between criminal and civil contempt?
A:            In criminal contempt cases, the court imposes a fine or jail time to penalize a person for something he or she has already done and to uphold the court’s rightful authority. In civil contempt cases, the court is trying to make a person comply with a court order, and the person can always avoid punishment by complying with the court’s order. In Sheldon’s case, the court imposed a criminal sanction by ordering Sheldon to go to jail for insulting the court, but then imposed a civil type remedy where Sheldon could get out of jail by apologizing to the court.

Q:       Would Sheldon have had the right to appeal the court’s contempt order to a higher court?
A:        Yes. Sheldon could have appealed the contempt of court order. If the trial court does not follow the correct procedures, a contempt order can be reversed on appeal. For example, the court can only impose a summary contempt order if the judge witnessed the contemptuous act and it interfered with the administration of justice. Further, the punishment for contempt must fit the contemptuous conduct and cannot be vindictive. Finally, if the contemptuous act was committed outside the court’s presence, the contempt would be “indirect” and the person found in contempt would have a right to a hearing. In that hearing, evidence of the contemptuous conduct must be presented.

Q:       If I am ever in a situation like Sheldon’s, how can I make sure I’m not charged with contempt?
A:        Always be respectful to a judge when entering a courtroom. A judge has contempt powers over everyone who enters the courtroom including witnesses, parties, attorneys and even spectators. Silence your cellphone before entering a courtroom and never make any gestures or create any type of disturbance when a witness is testifying. Nobody, not even Sheldon, wants to be found in contempt of court.

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Copley attorney Philip Bogdanoff. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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