Contempt is a crime that can be traced back to twelfth century England. It was an offense of disobedience that caused the obstruction of justice, and the punishment of such crimes was deeply important to the English justice system. Subsequent to the American Revolution, early American courts retained the use of contempt. Today, in the United States, criminal contempt is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. § 401. Despite the federal code, actions that exemplify contempt are not specifically defined by statute. Judges are granted broad discretion in determining which actions are contemptuous and which are not. Moreover, federal criminal contempt lacks an offense classification and a statutory maximum. Judges are granted wide latitude in penalizing contemnors.
In response to the lack of direction by statute, federal circuits have formulated approaches to classify and punish contemnors; however, the circuits are split as to the proper method of doing so. This split represents a threat to equality, as equal crimes should be treated equally. The First and Seventh Circuits classify criminal contempt as a Class A felony, for which a plain reading of 18 U.S.C. § 401 creates no statutory maximum, and thus a literal reading would allow for life imprisonment. The Ninth Circuit analogizes the underlying action for the criminal contempt charge to its most similar offense and sentences accordingly. Finally, the Eleventh Circuit deems criminal contempt an offense sui generis, of its own kind. These approaches are vastly different and can result in sweeping variations in sentences. Such sweeping differences in criminal sentencing runs contrary to the paramount concern of uniform punishment. To uniformly punish contemnors, the circuits must identify and punish contempt in a consistent manner. Congress should adopt a statutory maximum for criminal contempt to ensure fundamental fairness and uniformity.
Kaley Ree Jaslow,
Life in Jail for Misbehavior: Criminal Contempt and the Consequence of Improper Classification,
71 Fla. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/flr/vol71/iss2/7