Tom Stilp JD, MBA/MM, LLM, MSC

The department of children and family services Director, Marc Smith, has been held in contempt of court seven times for failing to comply with court orders. But what does it mean to be held in contempt of court?

Contempt of court invokes the police powers of the court to punish, either through a fine, imprisonment, or both.

There are two types of contempt, criminal and civil.  In addition, there are two means by which contempt can be found, direct or indirect.

Direct contempt of court is something that occurs in the presence of the judge.

Indirect contempt, on the other hand, is something that occurs outside of the presence of the judge, and requires corroborating evidence to support the charge of contempt. Usually, the court will hold a hearing with witnesses to determine what happened outside of court.

Contempt can be criminal or civil.  Criminal contempt is an action that impugns the integrity of the court or brings the court into disrepute. For example, yelling curse words at a judge would be direct criminal contempt of court.  The action (yelling curse words) occurred in the presence of the judge (direct contempt), and impugned the reputation of the court (criminal contempt).

Civil contempt is a failure to comply with an order or command of the court. Before someone is held in civil contempt of court, there is a process wherein a “Rule to Show Cause,” is issued, commanding the person to appear and explain why they should not be “attached and punished” for contempt of court.  If the person appears and has a good excuse, the court may forgive the infraction. If, however, the person fails to appear, or appears and does not have a valid excuse, the court will find the person in civil contempt of court. It is said that with civil contempt of court, the person holds the keys to their own cell – if they comply, then they are free to go.

Organizations, and even the government, can be held in contempt of court.

A number of years ago, we were successful in having the state of Illinois held in contempt of court for failing to provide important documents.   Arnold vs. Thurston, 240 Ill. App. 3d 570, 608 N.E.2d 418 (Illinois Appellate Court, 1st Dist.).  The state was fined every day the state failed to provide an accident investigation report.

We have used contempt of court to obtain compliance with subpoenas, discovery, and get important documents in a case.

Having conducted dozens of hearings on contempt of court, we have the experience to know how to litigate these important matters.