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What is Contempt?
What is contempt?

Most people have heard the phrase “contempt of court.”  They know it’s not good a good thing and it has to do with the courts, but not much more.  The schools should do a better job of explaining what it’s all about.     


To understand the idea of contempt you first need to understand the role courts play.  The legislature passes laws that end up in the Virginia Code.  Once the final vote is taken, the role of the legislature ends and it’s up to the executive branch and the courts to administer the law the legislature adopted.  


The executive administers the law through agencies like the police and the Department of Human Services.  The final decision about how the law is to apply to a particular person, however, lies primarily with the courts.  In the case of criminal laws, judges conduct trials and pass sentence on those who are convicted of violating them.  The executive has a role in that the prosecutors who bring the charges are executive branch employees.  But the judicial branch has the job of deciding who is guilty and what their punishment will be.  


In civil cases, it is up to the courts to sort out disputes between individuals.  The parties make their complaints to the court and present evidence to back up their claims.  In cases where a jury is allowed, the judge runs the trial but leaves the final call to the jurors.


In family law cases, however, there is no right to a jury trial.  All decisions are made by a judge.    The decision is in the form of a written order.  Sometimes the order just dismisses the case.  But if the case goes forward, the end result is an order that tells the parties what they can and cannot do.  


Contempt is a violation of a court order.  The order may prohibit a party from doing something.  These “do not” orders are called “injunctions.”  If the order requires a party to do something affirmative, the order is a “mandatory injunction.”  


Either way, if a party does something they were ordered not to do, or fails to do something they were ordered to do, their disobedience is called “contempt.”  Enforcement can take two forms.  If the disobedience can be cured, such as when a party has failed to sign a document, the judge can order the party be held in jail until they do as they were told.  


Once they have complied, they can be immediately released from jail.  This coercive form of contempt is referred to as “civil contempt.”  In law school they teach that the person in contempt “has the keys to the jail in their pocket” because all they have to do to be released is comply with the order.  


If the disobedience cannot be cured, such as when the order says the father was to have the children for Thanksgiving and the mother refused to let the children go with him, the contempt is punitive and intended to inflict some unpleasantness purely to teach the violator who’s boss.  This version is called “criminal contempt.”  In my experience the jail sentences for criminal contempt are usually 30 days or less and, at least the first time around, suspended so long as the person toes the line in the future.  But if there is a new violation, at least some part of the suspended sentence will have to be served.  


The big exception to this is child support.  I have seen people sentenced to a year in jail for failing to pay child support.  Those cases are technically civil contempt because the order will allow the person to be released if they pay a certain amount of money.  This is called a “purge clause.”  Usually the purge amount is less than the full amount of arrears owed but in a lot of these cases the person doesn’t have the money and they just end up doing the time.  


You do not want to be held in contempt.  The best way to avoid it is not to have a court order at all.  If you and the other party can manage without involving the court, there is no risk of contempt at all.  If you cannot avoid the court being involved, then do your best to ensure the order doesn’t require you to do more than you can.  


Do your best to comply with the court’s order.  If you are ordered to exchange the kids at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, have them available to the other parent at the right place and on time.  I have actually seen text messages where one of the parties sent a text message to the other that said “I don’t care what the judge wants, I’m going to do…..”  Do not be that person.  Judges get frustrated and angry when people disobey their orders.  You don’t want to walk into the courtroom and not come out because the judge has decided they need to teach you a lesson.


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