Vail Daily column: What is contempt? |

Vail Daily column: What is contempt?

Rohn K. Robbins
Vail Law

Has anyone ever accused you of acting contemptuously? Your dad, a teacher or your boss?

Ruminate on the word a moment. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “manifesting, feeling or expressing deep hatred or disapproval: feeling or showing contempt.” Contempt, in turn, may 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 (here we go) willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge or legislative body.”


When your dad, teacher or boss accused you of being contemptuous, sure to shootin’ he or she was commenting about your ‘tude and noting that in his or her estimation anyway, you lacked or were manifesting insufficient (as Aretha Franklin crooned) re-re-re-re-spect.

Contempt, like many things, comes in more than one flavor, but none are tasty. Rather than offend the court, it is better to adjust your attitude. If you are sufficiently unhappy with an order, the better course is to appeal it.

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So what’s that got to do, got to do, with the law?

It’s this. Law is based upon respect. Respect for the law, respect for the courts and respect for the judges. Agree with them or not (you can always take it up with your legislator), the court and its orders are to be respected. And if and when they’re not, you might find yourself up to your eyeballs in contempt, which in this setting may largely be taken to mean disobeying or disrespecting the court.


Those of you who’ve read my 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 in which somebody has the ability to comply but maybe needs just a little extra motivation. Civil contempt gives the court the ability to hold someone in jail only until her or she obeys the court’s order.

Let’s say, for example, the court has ordered a party in a civil case to take a particular act. Further, as part of a divorce action, the court has ordered the hubby to split the couple’s beer stein collection with the wife, but he has refused. In the above example, hubby can remove himself from jail at any time. He simply needs to 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 has the keys to his own jail cell.

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 corrected. 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 stein collection to his wife, he opts for a baseball bat and his best Sammy Sosa impression, turning glass and ceramic to dust.


Since he can no longer comply with the court’s order — the beer stein collection is now just a fading memory—the Court has little option but to dole out a little time for hubby to sit in jail and contemplate his errant ways, say one day for every stein he obliterated swinging for the fences. And if this were not enough, the chances are better than not that the judge will order our poster boy for bad behavior to come out of pocket and compensate his wife for the value of what he turned to dust with his batsman’s chops.

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 not to testify 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. In other words, the judge is asking 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 for the beer stein collection, whereas a punitive sanction might be to fine the offender and to ask the court to park his free-swinging keester in the local hoosegow.

Contempt, like many things, comes in more than one flavor, but none are tasty. Rather than offend the court, it is better to adjust your attitude. If you are sufficiently unhappy with an order, the better course is to appeal it. To thumb your nose at he who holds the key to your freedom and your pocketbook is a generally poor way to navigate.

Yes, judges make mistakes. They are only human. But one good thing about the law is — dare I say it — if there’s something you’re unhappy with, you can almost always get another swing of the bat.

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, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, or

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