Monday, January 12, 2009

Threat Of Contempt Draws Admonition

The New York Commission on Judicial Conduct imposed a stipulated admonition on a family court judge who had improperly threatened contempt on court officer who had taken a litigant into custody:

  The record indicates that when respondent learned that officers assigned to the Child Advocacy Center had taken the litigant, she telephoned the CAC, demanded that the litigant be returned to the court immediately, and threatened to hold the agency in criminal contempt for the officers’ actions.  She also demanded that the officers return to the court, under threat of contempt, and when they did so, she subjected the officers to an angry, lengthy harangue.  Accusing them of interfering with a court proceeding, respondent repeatedly threatened to hold a contempt hearing and stated that the officers faced 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.  Even after the officers had apologized several times, respondent continued to lecture them in an angry, discourteous manner and threatened them with contempt and a jail sentence unless they apologized.  Finally the judge accepted their apologies, and no contempt proceeding was held. 

            Respondent has stipulated that she “lost her patience and self-control,” that neither the officers nor the CAC was properly subject to criminal or civil contempt and that she should not have intimated that they were.  Under the circumstances, the threat of contempt or jail against the officers was excessive and inappropriate, notwithstanding that respondent did not act on her threat.  See, Matter of Waltemade, 37 NY2d (nn), (iii) (Ct on the Judiciary 1975) (judge engaged in misconduct by angrily and inappropriately threatening lawyers and witnesses with “sanctions” and contempt, even though his threats were never followed by a contempt citation or any other disciplinary action); Matter of Hart, 2009 Annual Report ___ (Comm on Judicial Conduct) (judge threatened an attorney with contempt or jail if he did not proceed in a case, notwithstanding that the attorney had been sent by his firm to request an adjournment and had advised the judge that he was unprepared to try the case).  It was an abuse of discretion for respondent to force the officers to return to court so that she could bully, threaten and chastise them.

In mitigation, we note that respondent now recognizes that her conduct was improper and that she should have accepted the officers’ early apologies.  We also note that she has committed to familiarize herself more fully with the legal and procedural mandates regarding contempt by attending an appropriate training program and  to adhere to the ethical mandates in the future.

(Mike Frisch)

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How is this different to the way many judges normally act? I cannot tell you how many intemperate judges I have been before over the years. Perhaps, the difference is that she acted this way towards individuals who were themselves representatives of the government and not merely towards members of the public?

The case seems to turn on the statement that “neither the officers nor the CAC was properly subject to criminal or civil contempt”. Is this a conclusion based on the facts? Or is this an indication of the jurisdiction of the court? If this is a conclusion based upon the facts recited in the case, then the judge had the authority to bring a contempt action. Failing to do so similarly would be within her mandate. Would it have been better if she had brought a charge of contempt and then acquitted the officers of the charges? That too would surely be within her mandate. If the judge had the power to bring the charges, then this case seems to be nothing more than a second guessing of the judge’s actions and decision and an invasion of the judge’s authority. But if the court lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute a contempt charge, then certainly the judge exceeded her mandate in bringing the officers back before her and threatening to do so.


Posted by: FixedWing | Jan 12, 2009 11:11:05 AM

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