Copyright (c) 1997 Suffolk University
Suffolk University Law Review
30 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 1067
ARTICLE: Welfare Reform, Contempt and Child Support Enforcement
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
n106 Civil contempt, on the other hand, developed as a means of enforcing existing court orders.
threat of contempt, in either form, is viewed as essential to the execution of court orders and maintenance of judicial
1. Civil vs. Criminal Contempt
The nature of the contempt authority and courts' imposition of contempt orders vary greatly in criminal and civil
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
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
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
n115 Finally, courts use contempt to compensate a party injured by the contemnor's violation of a court order.
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
avoid the penalty.
n118 Those who remain imprisoned until compliance with the order, "carry the keys of their prison in
their own pockets."
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.
Courts commonly impose imprisonment as a remedy in both criminal and civil contempt proceedings.
n122 In civil