Contempt of court is an important provision of the law. It allows judges to punish and disincentivize parties from hindering the administration of justice. This may be especially relevant in family law cases where people, who would otherwise never think of defying a judge, do so, not so much due to their contempt for the court, but their contempt for their ex-spouses. Contempt is a serious matter and the law requires judges to go through several mandatory steps before they find parties in contempt. Failure to clear each of those procedural hoops can lead to an appellate court’s reversal of a contempt finding, as was the case in the recent decision in Wilcoxon v. Moller.
A couple reached a divorce settlement agreement in 2009 that laid out several terms regarding the couple’s two children, including health insurance, the children’s extracurricular activities and communication regarding shared parenting responsibilities. The parties agreed to maintain accounts on a subscription-based website in order to facilitate their communications. After a motion by the husband, the trial court found the wife in contempt by virtue or her having allowed her subscription to the website to lapse, failing to transport the children to extracurricular activities and failing to provide the husband with copies of the children’s health insurance cards.
The 4th District Court of Appeal overturned the contempt ruling. The appellate court did so because the trial court did not follow several necessary steps. Before a court can find a person in contempt, the court must have created an underlying order that was clear enough to put the parties on notice that the court was ordering them to do (or refrain from) certain actions.