The concept of being in contempt of court is a fairly important one within the legal domain. The purpose of this sample expository essay provided by the professional writers at Ultius, is to discuss this concept and its implications within the context of contemporary society. The essay will begin by providing a basic conceptual definition of the meaning of contempt of court. Then, it will proceed to consider the reasons why a given person may enter into the state of being in contempt of court. From this point, the essay will discuss three examples of a person being in contempt of court, for various reasons. The last of these three reasons will be especially significant and salient with respect to contemporary American society, because it will have to do with the recent legalization of same-sex marriage across the nation.
Definition of Contempt of Court
The Law Dictionary has defined the concept of being in contempt of court in the following way:
“the act of demeaning the court, preventing justice administration, or disobeying a sentence of the court. It is criminal and can lead to fines or imprisonment” (paragraph 1).
In a sense, the meaning of being in contempt of court is almost self-explanatory. A person is in contempt of court when, through his actions or inactions, he demonstrates contempt for the decisions of the court and the larger body of law upon which those decisions are based. The nature of the modern judicial system is such that citizens are expected to accept the court’s ruling as a fair representation of the nature of the law. Therefore, failing to respect the court’s ruling becomes a crime in itself, as it is indicative of having disrespect for the rule of law in general.
In principle, any stakeholder within the legal system can be held in contempt of court. This is due to the very nature of the judicial process, in which different stakeholders are each expected to fulfill a particular role in order to ensure that justice is done and the rule of law prevails. For example, it is not only a defendant but also a juror, a lawyer, and any other legal official. Real examples of different stakeholders being held in contempt of court will be discussed shortly. Before turning to those, though, it may be worthwhile to reflect a little more deeply on the different reasons why a stakeholder within the judicial system may behave in such a way that he will be held in contempt of court.
Reasons for Being in Contempt of Court
In general, one can speak about two broad reasons why a stakeholder may behave in such a way that he enters into the state of being in contempt of court. The first is what could be more or less identified as the amoral reason. This consists of a stakeholder behaving as if he pursues his own interests in a way that is in violation of the rules and decisions of the court, either intentionally out of self-interest, or unintentionally out of ignorance of the nature of the rules and decisions of the court.
For example, a given juror may repeatedly violate the provisions of due process, as a result of just failing to understand the nature of those provisions; or, a defendant in a criminal case may willfully choose to ignore the injunctions of the court, out of the awareness that actually following the injunctions would hurt his cause. In any event, the main point here is that a given stakeholder may conduct himself in a way that is in contempt of court due to the fact that he simply has no respect (either intentionally or out of ignorance) for the rule of law.
The second reason why a stakeholder may act in contempt of court can be called the ethical or morally grounded reason. This is related to the concept of civil disobedience, which was perhaps most thoroughly elaborated by Thoreau:
the main idea is that there is another law, the law of one’s own conscience, which is higher than the legal law of any given society at any given time, and that a person is morally (albeit by definition not legally) justified in acting in accordance with his conscience and against the rule of legal law.
Concretely speaking, this would mean that although a given stakeholder may be fully aware of what the decisions and rules of the court are, he will willingly choose to act in defiance of those decisions and rules on the grounds that the court is opposed to the mandates of his own conscience.
Example 1: Defendant in Contempt
An example of a defendant being found to be in contempt of court can be found in the case of Walgreens in the state of Missouri. As The Kansas City Star’s Mark Davis has reported:
“Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster asked a Jackson County circuit judge to find the retailer in contempt of court under a 2014 order. That earlier action grew out of a 2013 state investigation and lawsuit. Koster said in a statement that his inspectors again found hundreds of expired price tags in Missouri Walgreens stores” (paragraphs 2 and 4).
What happened was that earlier on, Walgreens had been brought to court over the matter that several of the price tags in their stores falsely advertised the actual prices of the products being sold. The court had mandated that Walgreens must address this problem in an effective way, within a given timeframe. When inspections were conducted later, it was found that Walgreens had actually done very little to act in accordance with the court’s mandate. Therefore, the Attorney General is now moving to have Walgreens found to be in contempt of court.
In this case, Walgreens has acted in contempt of court by failing to act in accordance with the court’s decision in a meaningful way. Moreover, it would seem to be fairly clear that Walgreens primarily acted in contempt of the court out of a desire to pursue its own self-interest. In order to implement new policies that ensured that all price tags within the store were up to date and accurately reflected the actually prices of the products being sold, Walgreens would have had to invest resources into first, conceptualizing the problem, and then developing and implementing a solution.
Clearly, it would be much easier to simply ignore the court’s order and continue with business as usual. This would seem to be more or less exactly Walgreens has done in this case, simply hoping that the whole issue would just blow over with time. The Attorney General, however, is moving to hold Walgreens accountable for its neglect by bringing contempt of court charges against the company.
Example 2: Juror in Contempt
Afua Hirsch of The Guardian reported the following regarding a court case in 2009:
“The Times and a jury foreman who spoke out against the verdict delivered by his jury will face prosecution after a successful application at a high court by the attorney general” (paragraph 1).
In this case, the juror in question published his opinion that the defendant in a case of manslaughter was not in fact guilty, even though he was found to be guilty by the majority of his fellow jurors. By publicly speaking out about his own dissenting views, the juror violated the provision of the judicial system that calls for absolute confidentiality regarding the deliberations that occur within the jury room. Essentially, the juror published information that, according to the rules of the judicial system, should never be shared with anyone, and should remain exclusively within the jury room. As a result of this violation, the juror entered into the state of being in contempt of court.
In this case, there are two potential explanations regarding why the juror chose to conduct himself in the way he did. On one hand, it is possible that he was simply ignorant of the nature of the confidentiality provisions that govern the communication of information from within the jury room to outsiders. The juror may not have been consciously aware of the seriousness or illegality of his actions when he chose to speak out publicly about his dissenting views regarding the verdict of the court. On the other hand, it is possible that the juror did in fact know exactly what he was doing, but that he chose to do it anyway, on the grounds that the rules of the court were at odds with his own conscience. This is especially relevant given the fact that the case was one of manslaughter. The consequences of a wrong decision on the part of the jury for the life of the defendant would have been immense.
Example 3: Clerk in Contempt
Now, turning to a recent case within the United States that has made the news, a clerk has been held in contempt of court, due to her refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex applicants. As Millhiser has written:
“Federal District Judge David Bunning held Kim Davis, the county clerk who has become a national symbol of anti-gay animus for her resistance to marriage equality, in contempt of court” (paragraph 1).
The immediate historical context for this situation is the recent Supreme Court ruling that mandated that gay marriage be legalized in all fifty states of the nation. Davis has clearly indicated that her reason for acting in contempt of court is that the decision of the court was at strong odds with her own moral conscience. A self-identified Christian, Davis believes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that it would thus be morally wrong to grant marriage licenses to same-sex applicants. At the present time, Davis is in jail for failing to cooperate in any way with the decisions of the court, although the process is underway to appeal the ruling that Davis was in fact guilty of being in contempt of court according to Ed Payne of CNN.
The outcome of this case could potentially have important implications for future situations regarding gay marriage within the United States. In particular, the fact that this is set up to become a modern case study in civil disobedience is made clear by the headline of an article on the case that has appeared in the New York Times:
“Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage” (Blinder and Lewin).
This formulation clearly gives Davis’s actions something of the aura of moral martyrdom that is inherent to the practice of civil disobedience. The main idea is: Davis is choosing to disobey the law on the basis of her deeply held moral convictions. From a progressive perspective, it may well seem that those convictions are absurd. But this is not the point. The point is that her actions are in fact informed by a strong moral logic—a moral logic that is, in fact, shared by quite a large number of Americans. Civil disobedience has an important and legitimate place in American history, Davis could well be turned into something of an icon and heroine—and not just criminal—in the eyes of those within the nation who share her moral convictions and admire her willingness to act on them, even at the risk of personal harm.
In summary, this sample expository essay from Ultius has consisted of a discussion of the legal concept of contempt of court, including reasons why one may enter into the state of being in contempt of court and real examples of different stakeholders being found to be in contempt of court. Within the context of the present situation within American society, the most interesting point that has been made here is perhaps that there is a close relationship between civil disobedience on the one hand and contempt of court on the other, insofar as a person who civilly disobeys the rules and decisions of the court is by definition acting in contempt of court. This could have interesting implications as legal contentions regarding same-sex marriage within the United States continue to unfold.
Blinder, Alan, and Tamar Lewin. “Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage.” New York Times. 3 Sep. 2015. Web. 22 Sep. 2015.
Davis, Mark. “Missouri Attorney General Seeks Contempt Order against Walgreens.” Kansas City Star. 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 22 Sep. 2015.
Hirsch, Afua. “The Times Faces Contempt of Court Prosecution for Jury Story.” Guardian. 21 Jan. 2009. Web. 22 Sep. 2015
The Law Dictionary. “What Is Contempt of Court?” Author, n.d. Web. 22 Sep. 2015.
Millhiser, Ian. “Kim Davis Held in Contempt of Court, Now in U.S. Marshals’ Custody.” Think Progress. 3 Sep. 2015. Web. 22 Sep. 2015.
Payne, Ed. “Kim Davis Appeals Contempt of Court Ruling over Same-Sex Marriage Licenses.” CNN. 7 Sep. 2015. Web. 22 Sep. 2015.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.
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