It's a phrase you're bound to hear at one point or another in any legal drama or courtroom thriller: "You're in contempt!" But what does being held in contempt of court really mean, and just what are the lengths to which it can be taken?
The theory underlying "contempt" is fairly straightforward: a judge has the power to issue a civil or criminal contempt charge whenever he or she believes that a party or lawyer has disrupted a proceeding or disobeyed a court order.
Criminal contempt charges are usually aimed at punishing bad behavior, and the offending individual must be afforded the full due process protection that the criminal justice system provides (including a jury trial).
Civil contempt, on the other hand, is a somewhat murkier concept, even though it's what we generally hear about more. Even though it arises in a civil matter, like a family court custody order, or a journalist being told to reveal his source, it is quasi-criminal in nature.
This process, through which a court exerts its judicial authority to compel obedience to some order of the court, is meant to be coercive. It assumes that the person held in contempt, the "contemnor," holds the key to his or her own freedom.
In fact, under Texas law, the contemnor may not be jailed for contempt unless he or she has the ability but refuses to perform the conditions for release. The problem arises when the court simply doesn't believe the individual, resulting in the contemnor remaining behind bars.
In some cases, this can mean a long time behind bars.
At one extreme, we have H. Beatty Chadwick, who was released from jail in July 2009 after serving an astonishing 14 years and three months for contempt (believed to be the longest civil contempt imprisonment in American history)!
Chadwick, a former Philadelphia–area corporate attorney, was accused of hiding $2.5 million from ex-wife Barbara Jean "Bobbie" Chadwick (now Bobbie Applegate) during bitter divorce proceedings.
Although Chadwick maintained that he had lost the money through bad investments, Bobbie's lawyer accused him of hiding it offshore. When Chadwick failed to deposit the disputed funds in a court-controlled account, the judge had him jailed for contempt in April 1995. There was no trial and no charges.
Chadwick pursued dozens of appeals over the years to county, state and federal courts, even reaching the U.S. Supreme Court – twice. In an interview shortly after his release, Chadwick pointed out "If I had been convicted of murder in the third degree in Pennsylvania, I would have been out in half the time I was in jail."
Over the years, Chadwick had argued that he was unable to pay the money, and his inability to comply should have been decided by a jury, not left to the whims of a skeptical judge.
Moreover, he pointed out that federal law limits the terms of civil contempt confinement (for those refusing to testify in federal court or to a grand jury) to a maximum of 18 months.
Chadwick's lawyer, Michael Malloy, maintained that since the money was gone, so was the coercive effect of the order. The inability to comply, he said, had turned the contempt charge "into a life sentence."
Ultimately, Delaware County Judge Joseph Cronin agreed, ruling that there was little chance that Chadwick would comply with the order. Now released, the 73-year-old Chadwick – who battled cancer and had his law license suspended while in prison – must rebuild his life.
Chadwick is by no means alone. New York investment manager Martin Armstrong was sued civilly for securities fraud (he is currently serving a five year sentence for criminal conspiracy).
When he refused to produce certain documents as well as $15 million in gold and antiquities, Armstrong was incarcerated for civil contempt; ultimately, he spent more than six years in a Manhattan jail.
Arizona businessman Manuel Osete failed to turn over more than $800,000 in alimony and interest payments that he'd been ordered to make, steadfastly maintaining that he didn't have the money.
After he spent nearly three years behind bars from 2002 to 2005 without ever being charged with a crime, the Arizona Supreme Court changed its rules and Osete was released. Arizona courts now are required to hold hearings every 35 days for those being held in civil contempt on family law cases, and a judge must find that the contemnor has the ability to comply with the court's order.
Because most states face few limitations on how long someone can be held in contempt, critics have called for reform. According to Brooklyn Law School professor Jayne Ressler, "These results of too many civil contempt confinements are flatly outrageous and often unconstitutional."
Others point out that putting the burden on contemnors to prove a negative (i.e., requiring Mr. Chadwick or Mr. Armstrong to prove that they didn't have the money in question) is at odds with our justice system's "innocent until proven guilty," standard.
As a result of such criticism, a number of states have overhauled their laws concerning civil contempt.
Texas changed its law in May 2003, after legislation was passed limiting jail time for civil contempt to 18 months, the same limitation as under federal law.
The impetus was another cause celèbre: the case of accused con man Odis Briggs, who had allegedly bilked an African-American family out of over $100,000 in a scheme to help them recover lost family land.
Briggs was held in contempt for failing to document for the court where the money had gone (Briggs claimed to have forgotten, and said it was impossible to provide the documentation sought). Figures like Jesse Jackson lobbied unsuccessfully for Briggs' release.
After the skeptical judge who'd thrown Briggs in jail retired, his replacement reversed course, believing that Briggs could not possibly comply with the court order. After four years and eight months of imprisonment with no charges brought against him but contempt, Odis Briggs walked out of jail a free man.
Few legal analysts feel that we should completely abandon the notion of confinement for civil contempt. After all, sometimes the threat of jail is the only thing that will make someone comply with a court order.
But as with other aspects of our justice system, there have to be clearly defined boundaries on a court's powers. Just ask Beatty Chadwick.
John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org