What’s contempt of court?
Maybe were all a little contemptuous at times. I know I have my moments. The word contempt derives from the Latin contemnere, which means to despise or scorn. Contemnere, in turn, stems from the conjunction of the words com, meaning intense, and temnere, which means to despise. Contempt, then, means intense spite.In modern English, the word contempt is defined as the feeling or actions of a person toward something he or she considers low, worthless or beneath notice, something for which he or she has disrespect or scorn. I confessed to feelings of contempt at times. The Oakland Raiders are one example. Any further mention of Janet Jacksons breast is another.In the legal setting, contempt is a bag of woes. It may be defined as any act calculated to embarrass, hinder or obstruct the court in the administration of justice or one that is calculated to lessen its authority or its dignity. Plainly, its something you dont want to do. The court has troubles enough. Its understaffed and overworked. It deals all day with people at one anothers throats and people with real sorrows. Being a judge is a hard and often thankless job. And being a judges clerk may be even harder still. The mounds of paper to be sorted and the schedules to be juggled are almost beyond imagination. And the clerks dont even get to wear fancy robes.Amazing serviceIf you think about it, its an amazing service that the courts and those who serve them perform. In essence, what the courts do is resolve disputes without the parties recourse to a gun. The court is the keeper of the peace in the most literal sense. Win, lose or draw, youve got to love that. It keeps us, quite literally, from one anothers throats. And thats a good thing. An exceedingly difficult thing. And deserving of respect.Which leads me back to contempt. Contempt of court is committed by anyone under the courts authority as a party to a proceeding who willfully disobeys the courts lawful orders. Wait a sec here. Whats this about a party? No, cocktails are not being served, and the reggae band will not be playing. Being a party to the proceedings means that you are directly involved. You are a party if you are the plaintiff or defendant.Constructive contemptContempts are of two kinds, direct and constructive. Direct contempts are those committed in the immediate view and presence of the court. These can include such things as insulting language or acts of violence that are so near the presence of the court as to obstruct or interrupt the due and orderly course of proceedings. These, it should be noted, are punished summarily. They also are called criminal contempts.Constructive (or indirect) contempts are those that arise from matters not occurring in or near the presence of the court but that tend to obstruct or defeat the administration of justice. The term is used chiefly with reference to the failure or refusal of a party to obey a lawful order, injunction or decree.Contempts also are classed as civil or criminal. The former are those quasi contempts that consist of the failure to do something that the party is ordered to do by the court for the benefit or advantage of another party to the proceedings. Criminal contempts are acts done in disrespect of the court in its presence or that obstruct the administration of justice, bringing the court into disrespect.A civil contempt is not an offense against the dignity of the court but against the party on whose behalf the mandate of the court was issued, and a fine is imposed. Criminal contempts, however, are offenses or injuries offered to the court, and a fine or imprisonment is imposed.Although most judges I know have a well-developed sense of humor (how else could they survive?), they hold the court and its proceedings in almost sacred reverence. And who could blame them? Our system of law, while far from perfect, is what makes us the envy of freedom-loving people the world over.To have your day in court is a sacred right. And dissing it is a no-no for which you can expect a swift, meaningful and uncomfortable reply.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He may be heard Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of Community Focus. Robbins can be reached at 926-4461 or at his e-mail address, email@example.com.
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