contempt, in law, interference with the functioning of a legislature or court. In its narrow and more usual sense, contempt refers to the despising of the authority, justice, or dignity of a court. A contempt of court can be classified as civil or criminal, direct or constructive. Civil and criminal contempts are distinguished by the function of the punishment—if it is to vindicate judicial authority, the contempt is criminal; if it is to enforce the rights and remedies of a party, the contempt is civil. A direct contempt is one committed in the presence of the court while it is in session. A constructive contempt is one that is committed at a distance from the court and that tends to obstruct or defeat the administration of justice. A refusal to answer a question when directed to answer by a judge is a direct criminal contempt. Disobeying an injunction or a court order that a judgment (e.g., alimony) be satisfied is a civil contempt. A major distinction is whether the court needs to hear evidence to determine if a contempt was committed. Direct criminal contempts may be punished summarily by fine or imprisonment; civil and constructive criminal contempts can also be punished by fine or imprisonment, but the accused must be granted a hearing. In the United States, Congress can punish for contempt of Congress behavior that occurs during legislative proceedings and that threatens its legislative power. Congress must act before it adjourns, and any imprisonment can last no longer than that session. State legislatures also have limited powers to punish for contempt.
See C. J. Miller, Contempt of Court (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.