September 13, 2012
Strong Language to Court Clerk Leads to Jail
Cursing has become a common part of the speech of many Americans, and the f-word is frequently used in its non-sexual meaning as a stronger substitute for "hell" to emphasize the speaker's extreme displeasure or anger, as in "get the f--- off." However uncivil, even if used in inappropriate settings, the mere utterance of the word is unlikely to lead to arrest or imprisonment, in large part because of First Amendment protection.
Apparently, however, using such a word in complaining to a federal court clerk about the judge, even outside the presence of the judge, may be treated more seriously. As reported in the National Law Journal (see here), Robert Peoples, a disgruntled and seemingly difficult pro se plaintiff, after learning that a South Carolina district judge had summarily dismissed one of his cases because of his lateness to court, outside the presence of the judge told a clerk that the judge should "get the f--- off all my cases." The next day the judge initiated a criminal proceeding for contempt.
At a bench trial before a judge from a different district, the defense contended that Peoples' statements did not obstruct the administration of justice. The trial court rejected that argument, finding that Peoples' behavior had affected the administration of justice because "courtroom personnel . . . were temporarily delayed in conducting their routine business" in order to deal with him. Peoples has appealed to the Fourth Circuit, where the matter is sub judice.
It is doubtful that Peoples would have been prosecuted but for his use of a four-letter word. If merely complaining about a judge to a clerk, even vociferously, so that a clerk temporarily abandons her work constitutes contempt, many pro se litigants, and some lawyers, might be doing jail time.
The contempt power is a privilege special to judges, a vestige of the extraordinary ceremonial stature afforded them, as exemplified by the bailiff's order that all rise to honor the judge's entrance into a courtroom, the enthronement of the judge in a seat higher than all others, and the clerical black robe. The contempt power is sometimes used, and not infrequently abused, especially in the lower state courts, to jail summarily a difficult litigant. In my view, it should rarely, if ever, be employed to punish an unruly litigant not engaging in physical violence and if so only after due warning. Indeed, many judges I know proudly claim that they have never held a litigant (or attorney) in contempt.
The limited issues raised by the defendant in his brief to the Fourth Circuit do not concern whether judges deserve this special treatment. Nor does the appeal concern any matter of special or constitutional importance, including any that might free up use of the f-word, or limit punishment for doing so. Lawyers and litigants should still be careful to control their language in complaints about judges to court personnel.
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