When is Recusal Required in a Contempt Case?

June 25, 2019 § Leave a comment

Shanna Hayes was found in constructive criminal contempt by the chancellor for refusing to allow her ex-husband his court-ordered visitation. On appeal, she argued that the judge erred by not recusing himself. In the case of Hayes v. Hayes, decided May 7, 2019, at ¶27, the following statement appears:

“We do find that she was in a position to request that the trial judge recuse himself; rather, she waived that opportunity. Shanna admittedly did not object until after the trial court rendered its decision. In fact, Shanna allowed the trial court to adjudicate her rights and failed to file a motion asking the judge to recuse. “The failure to seek recusal generally is considered implied consent to have the judge go forward in presiding over the case.” Latham v. Latham, 261 So. 3d 1110, 1113 (¶9) (Miss. 2019) (citing Rice v. State, 134 So. 3d 292, 299 (¶16) (Miss. 2014)); see also Tubwell v. Grant, 760 So. 2d 687, 689 (¶8) (Miss. 2000) (holding where the party knew of the grounds for the motion or with the exercise of reasonable diligence may have discovered those grounds, and where that party does not move timely prior to trial, the point will be deemed waived). Therefore, we take the same position as the majority court in Latham and find that because Shanna failed to object to the judge’s recusal and preserve the issue for appeal, any assignment of error relative to that issue is waived. See Latham, 261 So. 3d at 1115 (¶20).”

To me, that statement is somewhat misleading. It appears to suggest that you have the right in every constructive criminal contempt case to ask the court to recuse. If that’s what it is trying to say, that’s inaccurate, as we will see. But first, let’s consider the two species of criminal contempt. There is direct criminal contempt, which is contemptuous conduct committed in the presence of the court, and it may be dealt with immediately. And there is constructive criminal contempt, which is contemptuous conduct that occurs outside the presence of the court, and it requires that the defendant be given notice of the alleged misconduct and a hearing.

Most constructive contempt occurs between the parties, as above when Ms. Hayes denied her ex his visitation rights. It doesn’t make any sense that a judge should have to recuse in that kind of case. But what about where the judge generates the case? A possible example might be where a deputy overheard an angry litigant in the hallway, outside the judge’s presence, mutter to a friend, “I’m going to kill that judge for that,” and the deputy reports it to the judge, who initiates a contempt action.

Justice Maxwell, wrote a helpful specially concurring opinion in the MSSC’s Latham v. Latham, decided January 17, 2019, in which he fleshes out the distinction:

¶27. I agree with the majority that, by not requesting that the chancellor recuse, Roger has waived this issue on appeal. But given Roger’s argument, I find it would be helpful to Roger—as well as the bench and bar—to explain why, in this particular constructive criminal-contempt case, Roger had to request the chancellor recuse to preserve this issue.

¶28. Part of Roger’s argument is that recusal could not be waived. He suggests it was the chancellor’s duty to recuse sua sponte given the nature of the contempt. As Roger sees it, our caselaw mandates judges recuse in every case involving constructive criminal contempt. Roger’s view hinges on his reading of two cases—Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. McGill, 890 So. 2d 859, 868 (Miss. 2004), and In re Smith, 926 So. 2d 878, 888 (Miss. 2006). He argues that, when read together, the cases “extend” the requirement to recuse sua sponte in any case involving constructive criminal contempt. But a closer look shows that neither case alters this Court’s well-established standard for when a judge must recuse in a constructive criminal-contempt case. Instead, both cases maintain that “[i]t is necessary for that individual to be tried by another judge in cases of constructive contempt where the trial judge has substantial personal involvement in the prosecution.” Smith, 926 So. 2d at 888 (emphasis added) (quoting In re Williamson, 838 So. 2d 226, 238 (Miss. 2002)); see also Cooper Tire, 890 So. 2d at 869.

¶29. In other words, it is not simply the nature of the contempt that mandates recusal. Indeed, the constructive criminal nature of the contempt is just part of the inquiry. The judge must also have “substantial personal involvement in the prosecution” to trigger the due process requirement that the matter be tried by another judge. Corr v. State, 97 So. 3d 1211, 1215 (Miss. 2012) (quoting Graves v. State, 66 So. 3d 148, 151 (Miss. 2011)). “Examples of ‘substantial personal involvement in the prosecution warranting recusal include cases where the trial judge acts as a ‘one-man grand jury;’ where the trial judge is ‘instrumental in the initiation of the constructive-contempt proceedings;’ and where the trial judge ‘acts as prosecutor and judge.’” Id. (quoting Graves, 66 So. 3d at 154). E.g., Corr, 97 So. 3d at 1215 (holding that the chancellor had substantial personal involvement because he initiated the contempt proceeding when he issued show-cause orders); In re Williamson, 838 So. 2d at 238 (holding that the chancellor had substantial personal involvement because he was a material witness in the contempt proceeding).

¶30. Here, Roger does not even argue the chancellor had substantial personal involvement in the prosecution of the contempt proceeding—a proceeding admittedly initiated by his wife. Nor does the record support such a finding. So the chancellor was not required to recuse sua sponte. As the majority explains, recusal was discretionary. And the chancellor can hardly be said to have abused his discretion by not recusing when he was never asked to do so.

That’s about as clear a statement as one could hope for on the issue.

Pleading Contempt

August 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

What you ask for in your pleadings will determine what the judge can award. So you need to be sure you’re asking for the right thing.

A recent example is the case of Fox v. Fox, decided July 18, 2017, by the COA. At the trial level, the judge found Tasha Fox in civil and criminal contempt for refusing visitation to her ex, William. Judge Fair’s succinct opinion for the COA reversed the chancellor’s ruling:

¶6. The record reflects that the chancellor found Tasha to be in both civil and criminal contempt for her refusal to allow William visitation under the April 2015 order. The chancellor sentenced Tasha to three days’ imprisonment, suspended on the condition that she surrender the child to William for a two-week visitation in July 2016. Tasha does not contest the finding of civil contempt.

¶7. On this point, we agree: William’s petition only alleged civil contempt, and Tasha was not afforded any of the procedural protections required to support a conviction of criminal contempt. See In re McDonald, 98 So. 3d 1040, 1042-45 (¶¶4-12) (Miss. 2012). We vacate the chancellor’s finding of criminal contempt.

Since William had prayed only for a finding of civil contempt, that was all he should have gotten. Tasha was not put on notice by the pleadings that she was in jeopardy of a criminal contempt ruling at the hearing, and notice was required. Here are the basics that you need to know about contempt:

  1. Civil contempt is designed to coerce a party into complying with a court order. The burden of proving civil contempt is by clear and convincing evidence. In civil contempt, the guilty party is said to “hold the keys to the jail,” because he or she can gain release immediately simply by complying with the court’s orders. The commitment order typically says that the defendant is jailed until he or she purges him/herself of contempt by complying.
  2. Criminal contempt is punitive, and is intended to punish non-compliance. The burden necessary to prove criminal contempt is beyond a reasonable doubt. Incarceration may not exceed 30 days for each offense. MCA 9-1-17.
  3. Direct criminal contempt is based on actions that occur in the presence of the judge, and may be dealt with by the judge summarily and immediately, and without notice. An example might be a party cussing out the judge to her face in open court. Incarceration may not exceed 30 days for each offense.
  4. Constructive criminal contempt is contemptuous conduct that occurs outside the presence of the judge. It requires a pleading specifying the conduct complained of, notice, and an opportunity to be heard. If the judge initiates the action, the judge must recuse and allow the matter to be heard by another judge. See McDonald, supra.

In Tasha’s case, civil contempt would probably not have accomplished much. After the judge announced his findings, she could simply have said that she was ready to comply, and that would have ended that. This was probably a chronic problem that the chancellor was trying to stop by sending Tasha a memorable message.

Had Tasha’s attorney thought it through, he might have realized that it’s best to ask always for civil and criminal contempt. That way, the judge has the latitude to address the problem in the most effective way.


October 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

We talked here before about the distinction between indirect and direct criminal contempt. Indirect contempt is also called constructive contempt.

Here are some examples where the courts have found it proper to proceed for indirect criminal contempt …

  • Acts committed outside the presence of the court that hamper its functioning. In Hinton v. State, 222 So.2d 690, 691 (Miss. 1969), the court found that defense counsel’s failure to disclose to the DA (and, presumably, to the court) that he represented a juror’s wife was constructive criminal contempt.
  • Acts that hinder or prevent service of process, with or without force. Aarons v. State, 105 Miss. 402, 62 So. 419 (1913). 
  • Published materials that address pending court matters and tend to prejudice potential jurors may be punished for constructive contempt; however, there are free speech ramifications that must be carefully weighed by the court. See, Jeffries v. State, 724 So.2d 897, 899 (Miss. 1998).
  • Abuse of process. In Higgins v. State, 218 Miss. 883, 891, 56 So.2d 61, 63 (1952), the filing of 58 suits for the purpose of harassing the Rankin County Sheriff was found to be constructive criminal contempt.
  • Contemptuous language in a motion. Wood v. State, 227 So.2d 288, 290 (Miss. 1969). 
  • Contacting or attempting to influence jurors. Young v. State, 230 Miss. 525, 527 (1957). Even a request to bribe a juror, which was not actually attempted despite the request, has been found to be indirect contempt. Brewer v. State, 176 Miss. 803, 809, 170 So. 540, 541 (1936). 
  • Filing false affidavits of return of process with the court clerk. Corr v. State, decided September 20, 2012, and In re McDonald and Cheshire, decided October 4, 2012, both by the MSSC.

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