Contempt power of courts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mechanism by which courts punish those who disobey their orders or disrespect their authority, in and out of court.

The contempt power of the courts, derived from common law, was directly conferred on federal courts by the Judiciary Act of 1789Judiciary Act of 1789. It was broadly interpreted until 1830 when Judge James H. Peck used the power to disbar and imprison a man who published an article critical of him. In 1831 a statute was enacted limiting the contempt power to three situations: misbehavior in the court’s presence or so near as to cause disruption of the court’s business, misbehavior of an officer of the court in the conduct of official business, and disobedience or resistance to a court’s order by an officer of the court or any other interested party, including jurors and witnesses.

Contempt can be civil or criminal. Civil contempt, disobedience to a court’s order, is a summary proceeding, with a sentence imposed immediately. Punishment may be incremental and continue until the wrongdoer complies with the court’s order. Criminal contempt, commission of a forbidden act, carries a set, defined punishment. It was not subject to trial until 1966, when the Supreme Court ruled federal courts could not impose a sentence longer than six months without a trial. The Court constitutionally extended the right to trial to state courts in Duncan v. Louisiana[case]Duncan v. Louisiana[Duncan v. Louisiana] (1968). On the same day, in Bloom v. Illinois[case]Bloom v. Illinois[Bloom v. Illinois] (1968), the Court ruled that both state and federal courts must allow a jury trial to persons charged with serious criminal contempt.

A number of Court rulings limited the ability of judges to act summarily by requiring due process safeguards. The Court also limited courts’ ability to use contempt in cases involving the First Amendment, such as Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart[case]Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart[Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart] (1976), in which it revoked a gag order placed on the press.

Contempt power of Congress

Duncan v. Louisiana

First Amendment

Judiciary Act of 1789

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart

Pretrial publicity and gag rule

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