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criminal and legal contempt

criminal and legal contempt - Copyright(c 1997 Suffolk...

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Copyright (c) 1997 Suffolk University Suffolk University Law Review Winter, 1997 30 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 1067 ARTICLE: Welfare Reform, Contempt and Child Support Enforcement NAME: Honorable Mark S. Coven* VI. THE INHERENT AUTHORITY OF THE COURTS TO ENFORCE CHILD SUPPORT OBLIGATIONS: THE POWER OF CONTEMPT A. Nature of Contempt At common law, a court's authority to issue an order of contempt was essentially criminal in nature, and was used strictly as punishment. n106 Civil contempt, on the other hand, developed as a means of enforcing existing court orders. n107 The threat of contempt, in either form, is viewed as essential to the execution of court orders and maintenance of judicial authority. n108 1. Civil vs. Criminal Contempt The nature of the contempt authority and courts' imposition of contempt orders vary greatly in criminal and civil contempt proceedings. n109 Determining which avenue of contempt should apply is often not as clear as seeing the difference in results. n110 This distinction may best be accomplished by scrutinizing the purpose of the contempt proceeding and the [*1081] remedial action being proposed. n111 Courts will hold a party in contempt when the party has performed a forbidden act and will punish the party with a fixed sentence, either by way of a fine or a term of imprisonment. n112 When a party has refused to perform an act as ordered by the court, and the court wishes to compel performance, the court will hold a party in civil contempt and will employ an indefinite sentence, again either by way of a fine or imprisonment. n113 2. Purposes of Entering Contempt Orders Today, courts use their contempt powers to serve three essential purposes. First, contempt is used to punish a party that violates an order of the court or interferes with judicial proceedings. n114 A second purpose is to coerce compliance with a court order. n115 Finally, courts use contempt to compensate a party injured by the contemnor's violation of a court order. n116 Where the nature of the punishment is conditional, allowing the contemnor to end his sentence and discharge himself at any time by doing what he had previously refused, the proceeding is one of civil contempt. n117 The penalty in a civil contempt proceeding is designed to compel compliance with a court order, but obligers have it within their power [*1082] to avoid the penalty. n118 Those who remain imprisoned until compliance with the order, "carry the keys of their prison in their own pockets." n119 If the sentence being sought and imposed is of a determinate nature, however, the punishment is criminal, and the court must provide the obligor all the constitutional and statutory protection provided to a criminal defendant. n120 Courts in civil contempt proceedings may impose a determinate sentence as long as it includes a purge clause, allowing the contemnor to purge himself from the contempt finding and sentence. n121 Courts commonly impose imprisonment as a remedy in both criminal and civil contempt proceedings. n122 In civil proceedings, the individual may comply with the decree before sentencing, or any time after imprisonment.
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