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Ask Judge Smith – Direct Contempt of Court (Part 1)

Question: ” Judge Smith, what is criminal contempt of Court? How often does it happen? What punishment does it carry?” – Zach

Suppose you are a public-school teacher presenting an essential lesson to a classroom of 30 students.

Suddenly, one student becomes loud and disruptive, distracting the other 29 students, who can no longer hear or learn.

How would you restore order?

Would you remove the troublemaker from the class so that the other 29 students could learn?  

Now, suppose you are a judge.

How would you respond when someone’s misbehavior disrupts court proceedings?

It’s my job to run a civil and efficient courtroom.

Courtesy means being welcoming and having good manners.

Efficiency means being thorough and vigilant about due process, access to courts, and constitutional rights.

It also means being prepared, showing up on time, and not wasting your time. 

Going to court is like going to the doctor.

Court dockets and waiting rooms are often overbooked.

People must patiently wait for their turns.

Moreover, judges and doctors juggle their schedules to triage emergencies.

Depending on the circumstances, we spend different amounts of time on our cases and patients. 

You’d be surprised by adults who misbehave in courtrooms.

Contempt occurs if the misconduct interferes with or impugns the judicial function.

When it happens, the judge must defuse the situation and regain control. 

Judges should use their contempt powers rarely and only with circumspection.

I take the time to determine why someone is misbehaving.

Suppose the person has a mental illness or is high. If so, I may reschedule his hearing for another day.

I might have a troublemaker removed from the courtroom.

That way, he does not interrupt and inconvenience everyone else.

After finishing the rest of my docket, I can bring him back and hold his hearing last.

Doing this discourages like-minded people from acting up.

Before I hold a contempt hearing, I provide the defendant with counsel.

I state on the record what I observed and the disruption caused.

I allow the troublemaker to explain himself, call other witnesses, and apologize.

If I find him in contempt, I pronounce my findings of fact and enter a written order.

Defendants found guilty of criminal contempt by a trial judge face up to five months and 29 days in the county jail.

Here are three quick examples.

I have found two men guilty of direct criminal contempt in six years.

One was rude and started a fight.

The other ran from the courtroom to avoid arrest, with my bailiff in hot pursuit.

Both men wasted everyone else’s time by delaying court proceedings.

I did not hold a drunk man in contempt for calling me everything but an American.

I brought him back the next day after he had sobered up, and he was a perfect gentleman.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge, bestselling author, and public speaker.Send questions to