Contempt “Legally” Defined

The following definitions for “contempt” are taken from Ballantine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (6th edition), Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition), and Webster’s Dictionary (1828):






An exhibit of scorn or disrespect toward a court or legislative body.


Conduct tending to bring the authority and administration of the law into disrespect or disregard, interfering with or prejudicing parties or their witnesses during the litigation, or otherwise tending to impede, embarrass, or obstruct the court in the discharge of its duties [17 Am J2d Contpt § 3].


see civil contempt; criminal contempt



  1. A wilful disregard or disobedience of a public authority.

  2. By the Constitution of the United States, each house of congress may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member. The same provision is substantially contained in the constitutions of the several states.

  3. The power to make rules carries that of enforcing the,, and to attach persons who violate them, and punish them for contempts. This power of punishing for contempts, is confined to punishment during the session of the legislature, and cannot extend beyond it [6 Wheat. R. 204, 230, 231], and, it seems this power cannot be exerted beyond imprisonment.

  4. Courts of justice have an inherent power to punish all persons for contempt of their rules and orders, for disobedience of their process, and for disturbing them in their proceedings [Bac. Ab. Courts and their jurisdiction in general, E; Rolle’s Ab. 219; 8 Co. 38 11 Co. 43 b.; 8 Shepl. 550; 5 Ired. R. 199].

  5. In some states, as in Pennsylvania, the power to punish for contempts is restricted to offences committed by the officers of the court, or in its presence, or in disobedience of its mandates, orders, or rules; but no one is guilty of a contempt for any publication made or act done out of the court, which is not in violation of such lawful rules or orders, or disobedience of it process. Similar provisions, limiting the power of the courts of the United States to punish for contempts, are incorporated in the Act of March 2, 1831 [4 Sharsw. Cont. of Stor. L. U. S. 2256. See Oswald’s Case, 4 Lloyd’s Debates, 141, . et seq].

  6. When a person is in prison for a contempt, it has been decided in New York that he cannot be discharged by another judge, when brought before him on a habeas corpus; and, according to Chancellor Kent [3 Com. 27], it belongs exclusively to the court offended to judge of contempts, and what amounts to them; and no other court or judge can, or ought to undertake, in a collateral way, to question or review an adjudication of a contempt made by another competent jurisdiction. This way can be considered as the established doctrine equally in England as in this country [3 Wils. 188 14 East, R. 12 Bay, R. 182 6 Wheat. R. 204 7 Wheat. R. 38; 1 Breese, R. 266 1 J. > Marsh. 575; Charlt. R. 136; 1 Blackf. 1669 Johns. 395 6 John. 337].



Contumacy; a willful disregard of the authority of a court of justice or legislative body or disobedience to its lawful orders.

Contempt of court is committed by a person who does any act in willful contravention of its authority or dignity, or tending to impede or frustrate the administration of justice, or by one who, being under the court’s authority as a party to a proceeding therein, willfully disobeys its lawful orders or fails to comply with an undertaking which he has given [Welch v. Barber, 52 Conn. 147, 52 Am. Rep. 567; Lyon v. Lyon, 21 Conn. 198; Kissel v. Lewis, 27 Ind. App. 302, 61 N. E. 209; Yates v. Lansing, 9 Johns (N. Y.) 395, 6 Am. Dec. 290; Stuart v. People, 4 Ill. 395; Gandy v. State, 13 Neb. 445, 14 N. W. 143].

  • Classification: Contempts are of two kinds, direct and constructive. Direct contempts are those committed in the immediate view and presence of the court (such as insulting language or acts of violence) or so near the presence of the court as to obstruct or interrupt the due and orderly course of proceedings. These are punishable summarily. They are also called “criminal” contempts, but that term is better used in contrast with “civil” contempts [see infra. Ex parte Wright, 65 Ind. 508; State v. McClaughterty, 33 W. Va. 250, 10 S.E. 407; State v. Shepherd, 177 Mo. 205, 76 S. W. 79, 99 Am. St. Rep. 624; Indianapolis Water Co. v. American Strawboard Co. (C. C.) 75 Fed. 975; In re Dill, 32 Kan. 668, 5 Pac. 39, 49 Am. Rep. 505; State v. Hansford, 43 W. Va. 773, 28 S. E. 791; Androscoggin & K. R. Co. v. Androscoggin R. Co.m 49 Me. 392]. Constructive (or indirect) contempts are those which arise from matters not occurring in or near the presence of the court, but which tend to obstruct or defeat the administration of justice, and the term is chiefly used with reference to the failure or refusal of a party to obey the lawful order, injunction, or decree of the court laying upon him a duty of action or forbearance [Androscoggin & K. R. Co. v. Androscoggin R. Co.m 49 Me. 392; Cooper v. People, 13 Colo. 337, 22 Pac. 790, 6 L. R. A. 430; Stuart v. People, 4 Ill. 395; McMakin v. McMakin, 68 Mo. App. 57]. Constructive contempts were formerly called “consequential,” and this term is still in occasional use.

    • Contempts are also classed as civil or criminal. The former are those quasi contempts which consist in the failure to do something which the party is ordered by the court to do for the benefit or advantage of another party to the proceeding before the court, while criminal contempts are acts done in disrespect of the court or its process or which obstruct the administration of justice or tend to bring the court into disrespect. A civil contempt is not an offense against the dignity of the court, but against the party in whose behalf the mandate of the court was issued, and a fine is imposed for his indemnity. But criminal contempts are offenses or injuries offered to the court, and a fine or imprisonment is imposed upon the contemnor for the purpose of punishment [Wyatt v. People, 17 Colo. 252, 28 Pac. 961; People v. McKane, 78 Hun. 154, 28 N.Y. Supp. 981; Schreiber v. Mfg. Co., 18 App. Div. 158, 45 N. Y. Supp. 442; Eaton Rapids v. Horner, 126 Mich. 52, 85 N. W. 264; In re Nevitt, 117 Fed. 448, 54 C. C. A. 662; Satte v. Shepherd, 177 Mo. 205, 76 S. W. 79, 99 Am. St. Rep. 624].



CONTEMPT, n. [L. See Contemn.]

  1. The act of despising; the act of viewing or considering and treating as mean vile and worthless; disdain; hatred of what is mean or deemed vile. This word is one of the strongest expressions of a mean opinion which the language affords.

    • Nothing, says Longinus, can be great, the contempt of which is great.

  1. The state of being despised; whence in a scriptural sense, shame, disgrace.

    • Some shall awake to everlasting contempt, Daniel 7

  1. In law, disobedience of the rules and orders of a court, which is a punishable offense.

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