Civil Contempt Confinement

This past month saw an interesting case involving a Pennsylvania lawyer who spent more than 14 years in jail on civil contempt charges in connection with divorce proceedings. The case stemmed from 1994 when a Delaware County judge held H. Beatty Chadwick in contempt for failing to put $2.5 million in a court-controlled account. Chadwick says he lost the money in bad investments. The attorney for his wife claimed he had hidden it offshore. In 1995, a Delaware County judge issued the order to jail Chadwick for failing to deposit the money in a court-controlled account to pay alimony to his ex-wife.

Fourteen years later, Judge Joseph P. Cronin, Jr. determined that Chadwick’s continued incarceration had lost its coercive effect and would not result in him turning over the money. Chadwick, now 73 years old, is believed to have served the longest imprisonment on a civil contempt charge in U.S. history.

The WSJ Law Blog has posted two articles on the topic of civil contempt confinement (Man Jailed On Civil Contempt Charges Freed After 14 Years and No Charge: In Civil-Contempt Cases, Jail Time Can Stretch On for Years) commenting that few argue that civil-contempt confinement should be abandoned altogether quoting Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA law school: “The threat of jail is sometimes the only thing that will make a person comply with a court order.” But critics do question why the burden rests with contemnors, such as Mr. Chadwick, to prove they don’t have the money, rather than with a prosecutor to prove they do. Brooklyn Law School’s Professor Jayne S. Ressler states: “It runs counter to our entire system to say ‘It’s your burden to prove a negative.'” Prof. Ressler is quoted in the Law Blog saying: “These results of too many civil-contempt confinements are flatly outrageous and often unconstitutional.” Federal courts are bound by 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3331(a) so that a recalcitrant witness before a grand jury may be imprisoned for the term of the grand jury, which can be 36 months. Most states face few limitations on how long someone can be held in contempt and critics have called for reform.

Those interested in finding out more about civil contempt will benefit from reviewing the CALI Lesson entitled Contempt Overview by Professor of Law Elaine Shoben of the University of Nevada. CALI lessons are available by accessing the library’s database page where Computer Assisted Legal Research exercises can be downloaded from the CALI web site. Users must first obtain the password from the Law Librarians at the school in order to complete the exercises in any of the computer labs or anywhere off campus.