Washington Law Review


A court's power to impose contempt sanctions on recalcitrant individuals is essential to ensure orderly judicial proceedings and obedience of judicial decrees. Despite repeated efforts to distinguish between civil and criminal contempt and the procedures required for each, the U.S. Supreme Court arguably has failed to delineate a precise demarcation between the two that considers both the due process interests of alleged contemnors and the remedial needs of party plaintiffs. This Article suggests that the Court's latest major decision on the differences between civil and criminal contempt, International Union, United Mine Workers v. Bagwell, represents the high water mark in the Court's emphasis on affording heightened procedural protections to alleged contemnors. This Article observes that by implicitly expanding the definition of criminal contempt, the U.S. Supreme Court has neglected to consider adequately plaintiffs' remedial entitlements and has unduly restricted litigants from obtaining equitable relief promptly and reliably. This Article proposes a return to the more traditional definitions of civil and criminal contempt coupled with additional procedural reforms that would enhance the rights of both civil and criminal contemnors while protecting plaintiffs' and courts' ability to have lawful decrees enforced.

First Page