LEGALESE — Contempt of Court

Most everyone has heard the phrase “contempt of court.”  But what does it mean exactly, besides someone making a judge angry and suffering the consequences?

photo courtesy of MorgueFile
photo courtesy of MorgueFile

The Georgia Supreme Court has long held that all Courts (read: judges) have the ability to hold people in contempt.  This is because contempt powers are necessary to “preserve the respectability of the courtroom and enforce rulings.”  The code section enabling judges to hold people in contempt, allows it under these circumstances:  “(1) Misbehavior of any person or persons in the presence of such courts or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice; (2) Misbehavior of any of the officers of the courts in their official transactions; (3) Disobedience or resistance by any officer of the courts, party, juror, witness, or other person or persons to any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of the courts;(4) Violation of subsection (a) of Code Section 34-1-3, relating to prohibited conduct of employers with respect to employees who are required to attend judicial proceedings; and (5) Violation of a court order relating to the televising, videotaping, or motion picture filming of judicial proceedings.” In plain English this means 1) acting a fool so as to disrupt Court; 2) if someone who works for or in the courts misbehaves doing his job; 3) refusal to obey a lawful order of the court; 4) if your boss won’t let you off of work even though you have a subpoena or summons to come to court; 5) if you disobey a court order telling you not to video record the Court.

There are two kinds of contempt, civil and criminal.

Civil is easiest to understand.  If the court orders you to do something, and then you don’t do it, you can be held in civil contempt.  In order to be held in contempt, you have to be given notice of what it is you are alleged not to have done, and then you have the right to have a hearing to prove whether or not you did it.  Child support is the most common example of this: if you are ordered to pay child support, and then you don’t pay child support, you get served with a contempt petition.  Then, you have to go to Court and either prove that you did in fact pay, or that you truly couldn’t even though you tried your hardest (there is a ‘willful’ element of contempt).  If you can’t prove that you did, or that you couldn’t, you can be held in contempt.  Contempt can be a fine, a further order by the Court to do something, or jail time.

Criminal contempt isn’t always as easy to puzzle out.

There are two times of criminal contempt – direct and indirect.

Direct criminal contempt is when you do something in front of the judge that either threatens to or actually does obstruct or delay the operations of the Court.  You might be acting disorderly, you might show up to court intoxicated, you might be cussing up a storm, and you might refuse to be quiet when ordered to do so.  In these cases, although you should be given the right to defend yourself, there does not need to be a formal accusation or hearing, and the judge can ‘summarily’ hold you in contempt, either by making you pay a fine or putting you in jail.

Indirect criminal contempt happens outside the presence of the judge.  For example, let’s say you were issued a subpoena to come to Court but you didn’t, and so the trial couldn’t go forward without your testimony.  This would definitely be obstructing or hindering the Court.  You would have to receive written notice of the allegations of contempt, and then you would be given a Court date where you would have to defend yourself.  A bad excuse: The Bachelor was on TV and I had to find out who got the rose.  A good excuse: I was rushed into the hospital for emergency surgery and was under anesthesia at the time.

Like most things in the Court (and life), if you are polite, do what you are ordered to do, and show up where you are supposed to be, contempt is not something you need to worry about.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advice you about your case without discussing the particulars of your situation with you,.

About Lori Duff 352 Articles
Lori is the author of the bestselling collection of humor essays, "Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza" currently available exclusively on Amazon. In order to finance her writing habit, she is a practicing lawyer with Jones & Duff, LLC. She is married to Mike Duff, who is a retired DeKalb County Public Safety Officer, and has two amazing children who make cameo embarrassing appearances in her blog posts and who attend Walton County Public Schools. Her legal column, "Legalese", is meant to de-mystify and humanize the Court system. When asked about her writing, Lori says, "Life is too short not to laugh at every available opportunity. My goal is to make myself laugh -- and hopefully you will laugh along with me."

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