What Does “Contempt of Court” Actually Mean?

If you watch police procedurals or legal-based TV shows, you’ve probably heard a judge say “You’re out of order, Counselor” (or something along those lines) and then fine the attorney or the client for being in “contempt.” As a general rule, however, these types of shows don’t get the nuances of legal proceedings right, so there’s a fairly good chance that what you think “contempt of court” means is a bit different than what it actually is.

Contempt is defined as “an act of deliberate disobedience or disregard for the laws, regulations, or decorum of a public authority, such as a court or legislative body.” Contempt charges fall into two main categories: civil and criminal.

Civil Contempt

An act of civil contempt occurs when a person fails to obey a court order. Let’s say a married couple divorces. As part of the division of property, the husband maintains possession of the family dog. The wife, however, refuses to part with the dog. The husband takes the wife back to court, where a judge may find the wife in contempt of the court order to release the dog. The judge may choose to hold the wife in jail until she agrees to release the pet, as civil contempt grants the judge this option. Once she surrenders the dog, the wife will be free to go.

Criminal Contempt

An act of criminal contempt occurs when a person’s actions obstruct justice. Let us use the same married couple, only instead of keeping the dog, this time the wife refuses to allow her husband visitation rights to their children. In this case, the husband – who has a court order allowing him to be with his kids – may bring the wife back to court, and the judge may claim the wife is in criminal contempt. This time, the wife’s attorney may present evidence as to why she is innocent of the charge – the husband missed the last visit because of work, or the children were away at camp for a week and the husband forgot, etc. – to refute the criminal contempt charge. If the judge finds for the wife, the contempt is dropped; if the wife loses her case, she may be sentenced to jail time for as long as the judge sees fit.

Why differences in contempt matter

These differences are especially important in child support and custody hearings, as either parent can file a petition to enact a contempt order if s/he feels that the parenting plan is being ignored. In many cases in Tennessee, the default contempt order in regards to missed support payments seems to be criminal contempt, a much more serious charge.

But in the second example, you might ask, the wife who denies the husband visitation is in contempt of a court order, too – so why is that example criminal contempt, and not civil? Simply put, the actions of the wife interfere with the rights of the husband to see the children, and the actions cannot be undone. Those days cannot be given back (unlike in the first example, where the dog can be released to the husband at any time). The same goes for a lawyer who verbally abuses a witness, or a client or attorney who is disrespectful to a judge. You can apologize, but you cannot undo what is done.