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Report No. 274

C. United States of America

3.10 Under the law of contempt in the United States, a 'contempt of court' is defined as an act of disobedience or disrespect towards the judicial branch of the government, or an interference with its orderly process. It is an offense against a court of justice or a person to whom the judicial functions of the sovereignty have been delegated (9-39.000 - Contempt Of Court)58.

3.11 The power of a court to punish for contempt of itself flows from Title 18 of the United States Code59, which is the main criminal code of the federal government of the United States law; also, dealing with other aspects of law of contempt i.e. contempts constituting crimes, criminal contempt, amongst others.60 Referring to the inherent power of the Federal Courts to punish for contempt in Ex parte Robinson, 19 Wall. 505, the Supreme Court said:

"The moment the courts of the United States were called into existence and invested with jurisdiction over any subject they became possessed of this power."

3.12 The law in the United States also categorises contempt of court under the heads of civil and criminal - where if a contemnor is to be punished criminally, then the contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; While also distinguishing between direct and indirect contempt: direct contempt being the one that occurs in the presence of the court; and, indirect contempt being the one that occurs outside the immediate presence of the court and consists of disobedience of a court's prior order. With the longest imprisonment on a charge of contempt extending to fourteen (14) years in the case.61

3.13 Further, in the United States, discussing the inter-relation between contempt of court laws and protections under the First Amendment, including the freedom of speech, the American jurisprudence appears to be placing greater emphasis on freedom of speech: "United States law traditionally regards freedom of speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment, as the paramount right that prevails over all others in case of conflict unless there is a clear and present danger that will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent"62



Review of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 Back




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