Contempt, a disregard of the authority of a judicial tribunal or a legislative body, for which the offending party is liable to punishment by summary order, without the ordinary forms of criminal proceedings. A contempt may be either direct, as by refusal to obey an order of a court, or constructive, as when officers of a court are guilty of any corrupt conduct, abuse of process, or culpable neglect of duty. Instances of the former are when inferior magistrates or judges disobey writs issuing from superior courts, as by proceeding in a cause after it is stayed or removed by writ of prohibition, certiorari, supersedeas, and the like, or by refusal or neglect to obey some requisition made by writ of mandamus. So when parties to any suit or proceeding disobey any order made in such suit or proceeding. Thus, non-payment of costs which the court have adjudged to be paid, or the neglect to do any specific act, as to perform an award of arbitrators when the submission to the determination of such arbitrators has been made a rule of court, is held to be a contempt, for which process of attachment will be issued; but in these and the like cases the attachment is to be regarded as a civil remedy for the benefit of one party against another, rather than as criminal process for the vindication of the authority of the court; and the right to issue attachments in these cases is now restrained within narrow limits.
Under the head of constructive contempts may be specified: 1. Misconduct of sheriff's and other ministerial officers by oppression, extortion, or any abuse of process placed in their hands, as in the execution of such process they are considered the officers of the court from which it issued, and therefore directly amenable to it. 2. Fraud or malpractice of attorneys, solicitors, etc. Fair dealing between them and their clients will be enforced upon summary application. Non-pavment of money collected by an attorney or solicitor will subject him to process of attachment. So when any improper advantage has been taken of a client, it will be treated as a contempt, and relief granted upon motion. The ground upon which courts interfere in such cases is the confidential relation between attorney and client, and the disrepute which would attach to the courts themselves if any want of integrity should be tolerated in their officers. In other cases courts will punish attorneys and other officers for a breach of any prescribed duty, even when there has been no private injury.
Thus, a master in chancery has been adjudged guilty of a contempt in carrying on a suit in the name of another solicitor contrary to statute. (See Yates's case, 4 Johnson's Rep., 317; 6 id., 337; 9 id., 395.) So if a private person brings a suit in the name of another person without his consent or privity, it is a contempt. (2 Johnson's Rep., 291.) For any disorderly conduct in court, summary punishment may be inflicted; in other cases an attachment issues for the arrest of the offending party, and when brought in he is usually required to answer written interrogatories. If the commission of the offence is not admitted, further proof may be taken by affidavits. Upon the admission or proof of the offence, the court adjudges the party in contempt, and may prescribe punishment in its discretion, which may be either fine or imprisonment, or both. The publication in a newspaper of an article calculated to impair the respect and authority of the court has sometimes been punished as a contempt; but it is generally considered that in doing this a court occupies somewhat dangerous and doubtful ground.
It is nevertheless permitted in some of the United States by statute or constitution. - The power in legislative bodies to punish contempts is analogous to that possessed by courts, and is exercised to punish disorders in their presence or which are calculated to impede their free action, to compel obedience to their proper process or that of their committees, to protect their members against unlawful arrests, etc. (6 Wheaton's Rep., 204; 14 Gray's Rep., 226; 37 New Hampshire Rep., 450.) The courts cannot review legislative decisions in cases of contempt; but where imprisonment is imposed as a punishment, it must terminate with the session of the body imposing it; and if the party is not then released, it may be done on habeas corpus.