02 April 2010

SCOTUS Perplexed By Criminal Contempt Process

A criminal contempt proceeding is a proceeding in a court to punish someone for violating a court order, usually in the course of a lawsuit between private parties. (Judges often, and parties sometimes, confuse these procedings with "civil contempt" where a sanction is imposed only until there is compliance with something that the person receiving the sanction capable of doing, typically testifying in court or producing documents or turning over funds or property that the person controls).

These are routinely prosecuted by the lawyer for the person who has been harmed by the violation of the court order, at least in Colorado's state courts, where I have done so. But, while this process is quite common and apparently has been used on a longstanding basis in the District of Columbia as well, the U.S. Supreme Court considering whether this process is constitutionally acceptable in federal courts, was apparently quite surprised that this happened at oral arguments and had lots of constitutional questions for the parties.

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