Robbins: There are different flavors of legal contempt |

Robbins: There are different flavors of legal contempt

It’s a word familiar to us all: contempt. But what exactly does it mean?

Webster’s defines it as “manifesting, feeling, or expressing deep hatred or disapproval.” Contempt may also be defined as “the act of despising: the state of mind of one who despises: disdain: lack of respect or reverence for something: the state of being despised: or (in the legal context) willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge, or legislative body.”

When your dad/teacher/boss accused you of being contemptuous, the betting money is that he or she was commenting on your attitude and what adjustment it might need. In shorthand, what she or he may have been observing is that in his or her estimation, you lacked or were manifesting insufficient deference or respect.

Well then. But what’s that got to do, got to do, with the law?

It’s this. 

Law is based on respect. Respect for the law, respect for the courts, and respect for the judges. Agree with them or not, the court and its orders are to be respected. Ours, after all, is a nation of laws; it is what our democracy is founded on.

And if and when the laws and the structures about them are not respected, it undermines the entire structure. What’s more — on a more personal level — if you fail to properly respect the law and its institutions, you may very well find yourself hip-deep in contempt, which in this setting, is likely colored as disobeying or disrespecting the court.

Two kinds of contempt

Those of you who’ve read my prior columns know I often serve up things in twos and there will be no exception here. In fact, I’ll serve this up in two. Times two.

There are two kinds of contempt: civil contempt and criminal contempt. 

Think of it this way; civil contempt is used in a case where somebody has the ability to comply, but maybe needs just a little extra “push.” Civil contempt affords the court the ability to hold someone in jail until he or she obeys the court’s order. This is known as “purging” the contempt.

Let’s say the court has ordered a party in a civil case to take a particular act. Let’s imagine further, as part of a divorce action, the court has ordered the husband to split the couple’s coin collection with the wife but has pouted over it, dug in his heels and refused. Somewhere out in the woods, he has buried it and refused to turn it over. 

In the above example, hubby can remove himself from jail at any time. All he needs to do is raise the white flag and let the judge know he’s ready to comply. The sooner he agrees, the sooner he can be sprung. In a sense, he is his own jailer; he can free himself by his compliance.

Criminal contempt carries more of a wallop. Criminal contempt is the cudgel a court uses to punish a person for disobeying the court, or in cases where the wrong cannot be purged. Because the sentence is meant as punishment, the defendant can’t play his “get out of jail” card.

Nope. One must sit and contemplate his errant ways. 

Let’s say, in our example, hubby is the vindictive sort. Instead of handing over half of the coin collection, he instead opts to feed the coins into a furnace. Instead of coins, there now exists a worthless slag.


Time to think 

Since he can no longer comply with the court’s order — the coin collection is now just a shiny memory — the court has little option but to dole out a little time for hubby to sit in jail and contemplate his wayward ways. And, if this were not enough, the chances are better than even that the judge will order our pouty poster boy for bad behavior to come out of pocket and compensate his wife for the value of what he melted down.

An important distinction between criminal and civil contempt is that one charged with criminal contempt has all of the constitutional protections enjoyed by anyone charged with any crime. This includes the presumption of innocence, a right to an appointed attorney if the defendant can’t afford one, and the right to remain silent if he so chooses.

Sometimes, you will hear a judge pose the question to a party seeking a contempt sanction against the other party whether the sanction sought is either “remedial” or “punitive.”  What the judge is asking is if the intent is to compensate the moving party for a loss or to punish the alleged offender. 

In the picture we’ve sketched out above, a remedial sanction might be to pay the aggrieved wife the value of the coin collection while a punitive sanction might be to fine the offender and to ask the court to park his defiant keister in the local hoosegow.

Contempt, like many things, comes in more than one flavor but neither one is tasty. Rather than offend the court, better to adjust your attitude. If you are sufficiently unhappy with a court order, the better course is to appeal it. To thumb your nose at he who holds the keys to your freedom and your pocketbook is a generally poor way to navigate.

Yes, judges make mistakes. They’re only human. But one of the many good things about the law is, if there’s something you’re unhappy with, you almost always get another go at it. 

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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