A common feature of legal procedurals and dramas alike is the judge shouting about a plaintiff, defendant, or even lawyer being “in contempt of court.” While it makes for good tv, what does being held in contempt mean?
The crime of “contempt” is deliberately broad and far-reaching. The most basic definition of contempt of court is the failure to obey an order of the court. This can be a single, rude indiscretion such as speaking out of turn, physically accosting opposing parties, or simply speaking out of turn repeatedly.
Contempt can also be issued based on procedural orders that are disobeyed. If a respondent fails to pay court issued settlements such as alimony or child support, this can also be grounds for contempt citations. Generally these contempt issues will be resolved through fines, although it is possible to incur jail time this way as well.
There is also criminal contempt which is even more deliberate than a single indiscretion or a missed payment. Criminal contempt consists of actively obstructing justice. This could be anything from threatening a witness or judge, to willfully disobeying subpoenas for evidence either through refusal to comply or by destroying the evidence. This type of contempt is more likely to result in serious fines and jail time.
Ultimately, regardless of the category, contempt is decided by the judge, who has absolute authority over their courtroom. The easiest way to avoid being cited for contempt is to ensure that all orders from the court are respectfully and dutifully carried out. An extremely simple way to avoid a contempt citation is simply to have an attorney present to advocate on behalf of the individual. Attorneys understand the options available to a client and therefore may be able to petition or subvert a court order through legitimate, respectful means that will be unlikely to result in contempt citations.
While a contempt order can be issued by the judge essentially at will, criminal and civil contempt citations can sometimes be appealed by a certain date. The best action is to avoid contempt citations altogether. If, however, you have been cited with contempt of court, the best course of action is to immediately consult with an attorney about your options.