Contempt of Court in the United States
Any act that obstructs the administration of justice by a court or that brings disrespect on a court or its authority. Contempt may be direct in that it occurs in the presence of the court and constitutes a direct affront to the court’s authority. Contempt may be indirect in that the behavior that demonstrates contempt may occur outside of the courtroom. While some due process protections apply to contempt, it is generally a summary order through which penalties of fine or imprisonment may be directly imposed by the court. It is necessary to distinguish between criminal and civil contempt. Criminal contempt is an act of obstruction or disrespect typically occurring in the courtroom. A party who acts in an abusive manner in court is in criminal contempt. He or she may receive a fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months may be summarily imposed.
Civil contempt results from failure to comply with an order of a court. Civil contempt is designed to coerce compliance with an order to protect the interests of the party on whose behalf the order or judgment was issued. Civil contempt ends when the desired conduct or compliance occurs. A legislative contempt power also exists. It may be used if a disturbance is created within a legislative chamber or if people subpoenaed to appear before legislative committees refuse to testify. Congressional contempt is not summarily imposed, however. It is handled through the standard criminal process with trial occurring in a federal district court if an indictment has been secured from a grand jury.
Analysis and Relevance
The contempt power provides courts with leverage to maintain courtroom decorum appropriate for judicial proceedings. Contempt enables a court to punish disruptive or disrespectful conduct, and it serves as a deterrent to such conduct. The Supreme Court ruled in Illinois v. Allen (397 U.S. 337: 1970) that, in addition to contempt, it is “constitutionally permissible” to bind, gag, or even remove from the courtroom a particularly obstreperous defendant. The contempt power also permits courts to compel compliance with a court order, backing up the authority of all such orders. Contempt constitutes an exception to the mandated right to trial and right to trial by jury. Due process requires that formal hearings take place in cases where contempt sentences might be lengthy. Indeed, extensive jail sentences can occur only after a trial on the contempt charge. In addition, such cases cannot be tried by the judge pursuing the contempt sanction. 
Any act meant to embarrass the court or lessen its authority and dignity. Contempt of court committed in the presence of the court, and which interrupts its proceedings, may be punished immediately by order of the presiding judge (in U.S. law). Constructive contempts are those that arise from a refusal to comply with an order of the court. The punishment for contempt of court is a fine or imprisonment.
(Revised by Ann De Vries)
Contempt of court life sentence
This article from the New York Sun describes a high-profile terrorism-related case, within the issue of contempt of court life sentence:
“Federal prosecutors are urging that a Palestinian Arab activist spend the rest of his life in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Hamas links in America.
Earlier this year, a jury in Chicago convicted Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, of contempt of court and obstruction of justice. However, jurors acquitted Ashqar of participating in a racketeering conspiracy to support Hamas, a terrorist group responsible for a string of bombings and other attacks that killed hundreds in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Despite the jury’s decision to acquit Ashqar on the most serious charge, prosecutors filed a legal brief Wednesday arguing that a probation officer’s recommendation of a life sentence for contempt was “correctly calculated.”
“Defendant Ashqar remains defiant, and to this day keeps locked within himself information and evidence directly relating to the domestic and international support network through which the Hamas terrorist organization perpetuated its long reign of terror, and in the process has allowed the directors and facilitators of that reign of terror to evade … legal sanction,” the prosecution team from the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald wrote. “That defiance reflects defendant Ashqar to be a continuing threat who is not capable of rehabilitation.”
There is no statutory limit to Ashqar’s sentence because he was convicted of criminal contempt, a crime for which Congress has set no maximum punishment. Other alleged Hamas activists who lied to or defied courts have received sentences of a year or two in prison. Obstruction of justice carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.”
What is Contempt Of Court?
For a meaning of it, read Contempt Of Court in the Legal Dictionary here.
Notes and References
- Definition of Contempt of Court from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
- Information about Contempt Of Court in the Gale Encyclopedia of American Law.