By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

Courts operate with authority over the property of parties to a lawsuit and in some cases with authority over the person of the parties. The court can require that a person perform specific acts or refrain from taking specific actions. Without the power to enforce obedience to orders of the court, such orders would become ineffectual and the court system could not properly dispense justice to the parties before it. If a court makes a decision and orders that something be done, the violation of this order is called a contempt. “The power to punish for contempt is inherent in the courts of justice.” Thigpen v. Thigpen, 874 S.W.2d 51 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993).

The Tennessee statute found at T.C.A. Section 29-9-102 defines and limits the scope of court power to issue attachments and inflict punishments for contempt of court to the following cases:

(1) The willful misbehavior of any person in the presence of the court, or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice;

(2) The willful misbehavior of any of the officer of such courts, in their official transactions;

(3) The willful disobedience or resistance of any officer of such courts, party, juror, witness, or any other person, to any lawful writ, process, order, rule or decree, or command of such courts;

(4) Abuse of, or unlawful interference with, the process or proceedings of the court;

(5) Willfully conversing with jurors in relation to the merits of the cause in the trial of which they are engaged, or otherwise tampering with them; or

(6) Any other act of omission declared contempt by law.

If any of these contempts occur in the presence of the court, the court may verbally order that the offending party be arrested by the bailiff without process or notice and the offending party may be held without bail. The judge may proceed at once to fine, or imprison, or both the offending party. This type of contempt is a criminal contempt because it is to preserve the power and vindicate the dignity of the court. A contempt action is generally considered a civil contempt when the purpose is wholly remedial, serves only the purposes of the complainant and is not intended as a deterrent to offenses against the public.

Where the contempt occurs outside the presence of the court, the party complaining of the contempt must file a motion describing what order of the court has been violated, who allegedly violated the order and the circumstances of how the violation occurred. The party accused of contempt must be served with notice of a hearing. If the party does not appear or respond, the court may take action against him or her and enter a civil contempt order by default. The court may order the violator’s body be attached and he or she be arrested. If the contempt is for failing to perform some required act (such as the payment of alimony) which is within the power of the person to perform, the court may order that person jailed until he or she performs it.

You should consult an attorney if you need assistance with a particular situation. Sharon Frankenberg is an experienced civil attorney licensed in Tennessee since 1988. She is a sole practitioner who handles foreclosure, evictions, probate, collections and general litigation. She represents Social Security claimants and represents creditors in bankruptcy proceedings. Her office is in Knoxville and she may be reached at (865)539-2100.