Contempt of court is defined as being any willful disobedience to, or disregard of, a court order or any misconduct in the presence of a court. It can also be in reference to an action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. Being convicted for contempt of court is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. There are both civil and criminal contempt; the distinction is often unclear.

Contempt of Court - Civil or Criminal

A judge who feels someone is improperly challenging or ignoring the court's authority has the power to declare the defiant person (called the contemnor) in contempt of court. There are two types of contempt: criminal and civil.

Criminal contempt occurs when the contemnor actually interferes with the ability of the court to function properly. For example, by yelling at the judge. This is also called direct contempt because it occurs directly in front of the judge. A criminal contemnor may be fined, jailed, or both as punishment for his act.

Civil contempt occurs when the contemnor willfully disobeys a court order. This is also called indirect contempt because it occurs outside the judge's immediate realm, and evidence must be presented to the judge to prove the contempt. A civil contemnor, too, may be fined, jailed, or both. The fine or jailing is meant to coerce the contemnor into obeying the court, not to punish him, and the contemnor will be released from jail just as soon as he complies with the court order. In family law, civil contempt is one way a court enforces alimony, child support, custody, and visitation orders which have been violated.

However, many courts have realized that, at least regarding various procedural matters such as the appointment of counsel, the distinction between civil and criminal contempt is often blurred and uncertain.

A Willful Disregard or Disobedience of a Public Authority

By the Constitution of the United States, each house of Congress may determine the rules of its proceeding's, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member. The same provision is substantially contained in the constitutions of the several states.

The power to make rules carries that of enforcing them, and to attach persons who violate them and punish them for contempt. This power of punishing for contempt is confined to punishment during the session of the legislature and cannot extend beyond it, and it seems this power cannot be exerted beyond imprisonment.

Courts of justice have an inherent power to punish all persons for contempt of their rules and orders, for disobedience of their process, and for disturbing them in their proceedings.

In some states, as in Pennsylvania, the power to punish for contempt is restricted to offenses committed by the officers of the court, or in its presence, or in disobedience of its mandates, orders, or rules. However, no one is guilty of contempt for any publication made or act done out of court which is not in violation of such lawful rules or orders or disobedience of its process. Similar provisions limiting the power of the courts of the United States to punish for contempt are incorporated in 28 U.S.C.

When a person is in prison for contempt, it has been decided in New York that he cannot be discharged by another judge when brought before him on a habeas corpus. Furthermore, it belongs exclusively to the court offended to judge of contempt and what amounts to them; and no other court or judge can, or ought to undertake in a collateral way, to question or review an adjudication of a contempt made by another competent jurisdiction. The same applies in England and America.