Contempt – when you don’t obey the court orders

Contempt allows the Judge to fine or jail the offending party.

Man held in contempt for not paying child support

Contempt for failing to pay child support is Class B Misdemeanor in Texas punishable by a fine of $500 and jail up to 180 days.

The purpose of the contempt is to persuade the contemnor to obey a previous order. This is the classic situation of a witness being jailed until he agrees to testify. The judge may assess a fine, imprisonment, or both, and the sentence may be determinate or open-ended. The only requirement is that the contempt is conditional in that the contemnor may escape the sentence by complying with the court order. In this way, the contemnors are said to carry “the keys of their prison in their own pocket.”

What is contempt?

Contempt of a Court’s Order is an act of civil disobedience of a lawful order

− issued by a Judge
− which the offending party has notice.


The type of contempt most often featured on television is direct contempt, which involves disobedience or disrespect occurring in the court´s presence. Because the judge directly witnessed the offensive action, he may immediately punish the violator. No notice is required for direct contempt, whether civil or criminal, unless it is assessed against an officer of the court. This is due to the court´s “inherent power to punish” for actions occurring before it and because the contempt immediately follows offending behavior. In other words, direct contempt stems from the court´s inherent power to punish violations in its presence and since the punishment is levied immediately following the contemptous act, there is no need to tell the contemnor what he or she did or call witnesses to prove the act.

By contrast, constructive contempt involves disobedience which occurs outside of the court´s presence, such as failure to comply with an order. Because it occurred outside of the court´s presence, this type of contempt requires witnesses to be proven. The court is therefore required to give the contemnor written notice of how, when, and by what means the party committed the alleged contempt, and then hold a hearing where the contemnor has the opportunity to call witnesses and defend against the charges.

Contempt is quasi criminal in nature but there is no jury trial.

Contempt proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature – that is true even for civil contempt because imprisonment is a possibility; thus they must comply with criminal standards of due process. Ex parte Gonzales, 945 S.W.2d 830, 836 (Tex. 1997). A person is entitled to counsel at a contempt hearing and has the right against self-incrimination.18 But there is no inherent right to a jury trial.  Ex parte GonzalesEx parte Werblud, 536 S.W.2d 542, 547 (Tex. 1976).

Gavel on law books with scales of justice

Contempt is the way a Judge enforces his or her orders

Although the Court’s power to punish through contempt is broad, contempt is meant to be exercised rarely and is presumed not to exist.  Ex parte Chambers, 898 S.W.2d 257, 259 (Tex. 1995)  Three elements must be satisfied to prove contempt: 1) a reasonably specific order, 2) a violation of the order, and 3) the willful intent to violate the order.  Chambers, 898 S.W.2d at 259; see also Rhodes, 974 S.W.2d at 740 To be specific enough to support a constructive contempt finding, an order must spell out the details of compliance in clear, unambiguous terms so that a person knows exactly what she must do to comply with it. Some courts have held that an oral order is never sufficiently specific; thus, only a written court order may support a constructive contempt finding; however an oral order may support a direct contempt finding depending on what the Judge ordered the person to do or not do.

Noncompliance with an unambiguous order of which a person has notice raises the inference that the violation was willful. Chambers, 898 S.W.2d at 261. But a person is in contempt only if he has the ability to comply with the Court’s order but chooses not to. In re Gawerc, 165 S.W.3d 314, 315 (Tex. 2005). A person may not, for example, be jailed for failing to turn over property not in his possession. But for this exception to apply, the inability to comply must be involuntary. If a person puts himself in a position where he is unable to comply with the order, then he may still be held in contempt.

Additionally, there is no appellate process for contempt orders. Althougha contemnor may seek relief through a writ of habeas corpus, a writ will issue only if the contempt order is void, meaning it is beyond the Court’s power or the contemnor was not afforded due process. A contempt order is beyond the Court’s power if it violates the Texas Constitution. Notably, the Texas Constitution prohibits imprisonment for debt, so a contempt order based solely on a failure to pay a debt is void. This does not apply, however, if the failure is to pay child support or a criminal fine. In both cases, this is considered failure to perform a legal duty, not failure to pay a “debt.”