What Does Contempt of Court Mean?

By Teo Spengler - Updated February 16, 2018
Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

No state has laws requiring you to admire a particular judge. But the law does require that you obey court orders and respect the judicial process. When someone disrupts a hearing or a trial, or refuses to obey a court order, he can be charged with contempt of court. A few of the more common actions treated as contempt are refusing to obey a child support order, being rude or violent toward the judge or others in the courtroom, and making noise that disrupts a court proceeding. But there practically as many ways of committing contempt as there are stars in the sky.

Tip

Contempt of court means rude or disruptive behavior in the courtroom, the act of disobeying a court order either by doing something you are told not to do or failing to do something you are ordered to do.

Not Parties Alone

When you hear about contempt of court, the person being charged is often a party to the action. While parties can be held in contempt, they are not the only ones. Witnesses who don't appear might be held in contempt, as may misbehaving attorneys for either party or any witness. Jurors and other court personnel, as well as outsiders who insert themselves into a case, can also be held in contempt. For example, a person can be held in contempt if she stands outside a courtroom and prevents a witness from entering. In general, anyone who interferes with a court proceeding or makes it more difficult for the orderly administration of justice may be be held in contempt.

Judges have a lot of leeway in deciding who to charge. They can use the contempt power to force people to obey its orders but they can also use it to punish those who disrespect the court. These differences can make the entire subject confusing. It is easier to understand contempt when you break it down into its four basic components. Contempt can be civil or criminal, and it can be direct or indirect.

Civil vs. Criminal Contempt

Civil contempt is refusal to follow a court order. It can either be a refusal to do something the court orders you to do, or doing something the court tells you not to do. Civil contempt is often seen in a divorce case. For example, if a parent refuses to pay court-ordered child support, it is civil contempt. It is also civil contempt for a divorced parent to refuse to turn over the kids to the other parent as required by a parenting time order. The judge uses the threat of contempt to coerce the parties to follow its orders. For example, the court may fine a parent hiding a child $100 per day until the child is produced.

Criminal contempt is a different animal. It occurs when someone actively disrespects the court or acts in a way that makes it more difficult for the court to conduct its work. For example, if the defendant in a criminal case screams insults at the judge, it can be treated as criminal contempt. Note that criminal contempt is not limited to a criminal case. If a spouse shouts insults at the judge during a divorce case, it is also criminal contempt. A judge uses a criminal contempt charge to punish the offender. The person shouting may be ordered to spend a week in jail, or pay a fine of $1,000.

Direct vs. Indirect Contempt

Courts also distinguish between direct and indirect contempt. Direct contempt happens right in the courtroom. For example, if a witness refuses to answer questions put to her by an attorney after the court orders her to respond, it is direct contempt. It happens in front of the judge so the judge can, then and there, find the person in contempt.

Indirect contempt happens outside the court. For example, when one divorcing spouse hides assets to prevent the other from claiming a share, it can be viewed as indirect contempt. Its intention is to interrupt the fair and efficient administration of justice. For a party or an attorney to try to talk to jurors outside the court can be indirect contempt. Indirect contempt must be brought to the judge's attention by an order to show cause, setting out the actions taken and the orders violated. The court holds a hearing on the charges to determine if they are true.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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