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What is Contempt of Court?

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Contempt of Court is willfully embarrassing or obstructing the court in its administration of justice. Historically, contempt was any act done in violation of a direct order of the king or any direct insult to the king or his government. The purpose of the law of contempt of court is to vindicate the court's authority and dignity by punishing intentional acts in defiance of that authority and to secure compliance with the orders of the court. The first federal statute in the United States regarding contempt of court was passed in 1789.

Direct contempts are those committed in the presence of the court, such as insulting language or acts of violence. Indirect contempts arise outside the court but usually tend to obstruct the administration of justice through failure to obey a decree of the court to perform or refrain from performing an act. An example of indirect contempt is the refusal of a union leader to obey an injunction against striking.

Contempts (both direct and indirect) are classified as civil or criminal. Either may be punished by imprisonment. The difference lies in the character and purpose of imprisonment. Civil punishment is designed to compel specific conduct and usually involves imprisonment for an unlimited term, with release conditioned upon compliance with the court order. On the other hand, criminal contempt is aimed at punishing contemptuous acts and deterring others from similarly defying the court. Thus the defendant will be imprisoned for a limited period or will be fined, but the punishment imposed will not be affected by his future conduct.

Another form of contempt, contempt of Congress, involves the obstruction of the due course of congressional proceedings. It usually concerns a witness' failure to attend a congressional inquiry or to answer pertinent questions at such an inquiry.

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