Contempt Of Court

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. [1]

Practical Information

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

  1. Definition of Contempt of Court from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Further Reading

Contempt Of Court: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Contempt Of Court. This part provides references, in relation to Contempt Of Court, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Contempt Of Court by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Contempt Of Court and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Contempt Of Court or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Contempt Of Court and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Contempt Of Court. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Contempt Of Court should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Contempt Of Court when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

7 thoughts on “Contempt Of Court”

  1. In relation to contempt of court life sentence, it is difficult to reach an agreement, specially in terrorism-based cases.

  2. Couts

    Deportation is not actually a criminal punishment. Moreover, the executive has entered into a treaties which prevents it from deporting people to places where they can be tortured. There has been no effort to withdraw from these treaties, and the current administration has complied with them, therefore, in our county, your views have been rejected. Perhaps president Hillary will be more receptive to them if you were able to state them with clarity. In the unlikely alternative that Hillary doesn’t win, you can write President Obama a letter expressing your views.

    Refusing to talk is not “abusing” the legal system. Nor is defending oneself in trial. The legal system is quite capable of defending itself against “abuse” without having to resort to the illegal activities you propose.

  3. Since contempt of court is highly discretionary, the sentence can be as little as “until you apologize,”which might be four hours, or it might be for over a year, as when certain newspaper reporters refused to disclose sources. A woman caught at the U.S.-Mexico border faces up to life in prison, for example, after pleading guilty on November 2016 to contempt of court.

  4. Perverting the course of justice carries a theoretical maximum sentence of life imprisonment in the United Kingdom. A person living in the UK may, in theory, laid himself open to a prosecution for perjury. That carries, under English law, a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment and/or fine. Contempt of court carries a jail sentence. Not a life imprisonment.

  5. Maximum Penalties should be known, at least by a government-produced sentencing guide. In the case of Illinois sentencing, when a contempt of court came up, it is not in the criminal code. It is a judicial thing.

  6. Is there a limit to contempt of court? If the judge throws me in the slammer for being a smart-ass, will I rot there forever if I don’t change my tune? I know all I have to do is comply with the court’s wishes to be freed, but what if I refuse on moral grounds? Can contempt be a life sentence, or is there some statutory limit?.

  7. A person facing imprisonment for contempt of court has likely received full due process of the law. Many people that face contempt charges.

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