What is "Contempt of court"?

I’ve seen this phrase pop up in just about every TV show or movie that had a court-room scene. According to Hollywood, any judge can fine you any amount of money (or send you to jail) for any reason whatsoever citing “contempt of court”, whether you’re in a court room or not.

Just what is contempt of court, and how does it work in reality?


Usually, it’s when you don’t follow the judge’s instructions, or if you do something the judge deems disrespectful. If the judge gives an order and you refuse to obey it, you can be held in contempt.

In one case around here, someone showed up to testify wearing a t-shirt saying “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport” (he claimed he had no other clean shirts). The judge held him in contempt for wearing it. I forget if he fined the guy or had him jailed.

There are also cases of journalists being held in contempt because they refused to name their sources when a judge ordered it. (There are shield laws now in some states to protect the journalists.)

This is just off the top of my head…

It’s anything that interferes with the procedure of the trial. So it can cover anything from standing up and shouting in the courtroom to newspapers printing stories in advance of a trial that might prejudice the proceedings.

The idea is that once a person has been charged with a crime they come under the protection of the law from that point onwards. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with the smooth running of the case.

Once an accused person has come under the protection of the law the only things that are allowed to affect the case are legally allowed things.

Contempt is treated very seriously by courts. The reasoning they use is that if you have some information to bring to the case then you should use the proper legal channels available to you. Why stand up in court shouting about it when you could have informed the relevant lawyer about it before the case started or you could wait for a recess or you could pass the lawyer a note?

Anything, just don’t stand up in the middle of a case and shout about it. Legal channels are available if you have proper evidential information to give so use them.

If you don’t have proper evidential information to give then shut up or else go to prison. A court case is supposed to be pure, pristine, unaffected by extraneous factors. A case exists in it’s own world, each case is separate from every other case and is separate from anything else that is happening in the outside world.

The rules were created in order to give defendants as fair a trial as possible. I’m sure I could have explained all this more succinctly but there you go.

Judges are assholes. They have a right to punish someone for being in contempt of them being assholes. Courts are a lot of fun. Police, also, are deemed incapable of lying in court, despite the obvious fact I will not lower myself to mention.

“Contempt of Court” is an unconstitutional method of punishing people who have committed no crime, but piss off the court.

(that was all in good fun, of course, i worship you guys).

Another reason to be held in contempt is to refuse to answer questions when subpoenad to do so. Susan McDougal was an example and that mother who refused to say where she hid her daughter so the father could not exercise his visitation rights.

Yes, lying under oath could bring you into contempt. The court has rules and these rules must be followed by everyone involved - the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses, the outside world,everyone.

When you enter a courtroom as a witness or as a defendant you are agreeing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you knowingly lie then you have obviously tried to pervert the course of justice.

If you deliberately try to frustrate the cause of justice then you are not holding the court under the respect which it demands of you. You are in contempt.

Isn’t that purgery rather than contempt of court?

Yes but I think perjury is a kinda subset of contempt. You may get charged with perjury (because it has a bigger jail sentence) but if you commit perjury you also commit contempt.

Please note that all the above posts are just my hazy recollection from law school and could be wrong, if you need legal advice consult a lawyer.

The following pertains to the U.S. only.

“Contempt of court” arises from the judge’s power to maintain order and decorum in his or her courtroom and from an individual’s obligation to cooperate with the legal process. So there are two broad types of contempt of court – willful disrespect of of the dignity of a court, and willful disobedience of a lawful order of a court.

Historically, the judge’s authority to hold someone in contempt of court has been considered inherent – that is, it is something you can do because you are de judge. (The dignity of a judge’s position necessarily encompasses the right to insist that dignity be respected; and the authority of a judge’s orders necessarily includes the right to enforce those orders.) These days, though, most states (AFAIK) have made explicit a judge’s authority to hold people in contempt by setting it out in the state statutes. Contempt is generally a civil matter – meaning it results in the imposition of a fine, not in the bringing of criminal charges – although in egregious cases charges of criminal contempt may be brought.

Perjury, OTOH, is specifically the act of making a false statement under oath, generally in a court of law. Perjury is a big deal. (Not to imply that contempt of court is not a big deal too, but perjury is a way bigger deal.) Perjury is a crime, in all U.S. jurisdictions (AFAIK). In my jurisdiction, perjury in the first degree is a felony. Perjury may not appear to be a contempt of court in a given specific case, because it may not offend the dignity of the courtroom and or involve defiance of a court order, but it is in theory always a contempt, because lying under oath undermines, and offends the dignity of, the proceedings.

You have to be in court (or otherwise under oath, like at a deposition) in order to commit perjury. You only have to disregard or defy a court order in order to be held in contempt of court. If you get a summons for jury duty and you disregard it, it is possible you will be cited for contempt of court. Most contempt citations IME arise from disregarded or defied court orders – people who are summoned or subpoena’ed and don’t show up. It’s rare for a person to be held in contempt for in-court behavior (with the exception of certain criminal defendants) though I myself once heard opposing counsel lose his head, call the judge a horse’s ass, be cited for contempt, write a check for $500 for the contempt citation, move to have the judge recuse himself, have his motion denied, call the judge a horse’s ass again, and be escorted from the courtroom to cool his heels in a jail cell. All in less than 10 minutes. (True story.)

Judges do tend to be zealous of their dignity (especially IME federal judges), but personally I think that’s appropriate in that they are the gatekeepers for the Rule of Law, which I have the utmost respect for.

“Purgery” - my typo sounds like something gross - “purging in court”.

Thanks for the clarification Jodi.

As an aside, I was watching “My Cousin Vinny” this evening, and the judge held Vinny in contempt for beating around the bush when he was only supposed to say whether his clients were pleading guilty or not guilty at the arraignment. Great movie.

My own little Contempt-of-court story:

Way back in college, I got a ticket for riding a bicycle through a red light. I then prompty forgot about said ticket. Several months later I found the ticket while cleaning the apt.

I went to the court house the next day to ask what to do and was told to report to court the next day. I did and was charged with contempt of court, fined $75 and the original ticket was dropped.

I was charged for not reporting when I was supposed to, but because I showed up on my on valition, no other penalties were applied.

In the United States courts generally do not have the authority to prohibit newspapers or anyone else from publishing or saying anything, regardless of whether it might prejudice the proceedings. The only people the court has authority over are the participants in a proceeding — the parties, their counsel, and witnesses.


No, you’re not. You’re being told to tell the truth. There’s nothing voluntary about it.


If it’s civil, then why can people be sent to jail for it?


What if a newspaper publishes information that was received due to a witness violating a gag order? Can the newspaper be fined? How are gag orders constitutional, anyway?


Am I missing something obvious about perjury/ contempt of court during a trial. If someone pleads not guilty and then during the trial it is discovered that they had lied throughout the trial, and is found guilty, why are they not found guilty of perjury in addition to being guilty in the original trial? Can you be given an additional punishment for the perjury?
I’m assuming that if you were found innocent of the original charge you would be still be charged and sentenced for the perjury.


To be found guilty of perjury the prosecutor would have to bring the charge separately and there would have to be another trial. The judge can’t just say “the jury has found you guilty of mopery, and you lied about it throughout the entire trial, so I’m finding you guilty of perjury too.” In most instances the conviction for the charged offense will bring sufficient pnishment that the prosecutor isn’t going to bother with another trial for the perjury charge. The judge is also not going to hold someone in contempt for lying during the trial once a conviction comes in, as there’s really no point. The defendant’s conduct during trial may certainly lead to a harsher sentence but not a separate contempt citation. Unless the lie is particularly egregious the prosecutor probably isn’t going to invest the resources in a perjury trial. “The jury in the mopery trial didn’t think I was lying” is a pretty good guarantee of reasonable doubt.

As for holding an acquitted person in contempt for lying during the trial, my gut instinct is that would be seen as an attempt to punish the defendant for the crime despite the conviction and would not be allowed eithr under double jeopardy of the Eighth Amendment bar on cruel and unusual punishment, but as always IANAL so I’m sure that one of our resident lawyers will be along any minute to explain how wrong I am.

acsenray said:

oh ok, although that sounds strange to me (I’m not in the US). So you are saying that in a high profile case (oj for example) the newspapers and tv can publish whatever they like about the details of the case?

eg they could publicise some bogus alibi which “proves” oj didn’t do it. The jurers would then read all this stuff prior to the trial and then go into the trial with all this incorrect, inadmissable stuff inside their head. How do you then get a fair trial?

The Ryan said:

No that’s not correct. Of course it’s voluntary, you can’t force someone to tell the truth. That’s why you take an oath. By taking an oath you are, in effect, signing a contract with the court - you are agreeing to tell the truth.

If you then go ahead and lie then you are “breaching the contract” and may be punished. But you can lie if you want to, as long as you are prepared to take the consequences.

The lawyers in a court (prosecutors and defenders) don’t have to take an oath because they are already bound by certain rules (including telling the truth) because they are Officers of the Court.

Jodi dealt with this - there’s civil contempt and there’s criminal contempt.

To add to Jodi’s already-excellent post, I’d offer the distinction between direct and indirect contempt of court.

Direct contempt of court is what Jodi described as “willful disrespect of the dignity of a court,” and indirect as “willful disobedience of a lawful order of a court.” I write separately (always feel like a judge when I say that!) to note that, in general, direct contempt may be summarily puinished – no fact-finding hearing or trial is required. Except in absolutely outrageous cases, in which it was completely clear that the conduct was improper, in general the record must reflect that the person was warned about his conduct and persisted, and that the person was given an opportunity to explain himself.

Indirect contempt, in contrast, includes things like refusal to testify, interfering with process service, or tampering with a witness or veneireman. To punish indirect contempt, the accused must be given notice - a show cause order, bench warrant, or the like - and a contempt hearing is held, at which the accused has the right to counsel, the rules of evidence apply, and, if the original judge needs to be a witness to facts that go beyond the realm of simple judicial notice, then another judge must hear the case.

  • Rick

For some reason, my last post doesn’t show up as the “last post” on the GQ page.

As a reply to Vetch and Otto, I would like to add this:

I am not completely sure about the US, but for most European countries, and I think it is the same in most civilized nations (although the exact wording of the law may be different).
Nobody is obliged to tell anything in court which could incriminate themselves (or any close relative). The defendant has the explicit right to refuse answer or even lie to a given question without committing perjury. Of course that does not save the defendant from being found guilty anyway.

As I said, this is only the basic principle and the exact implementation may vary.