Family law cases can be emotionally intense disputes and can lead to people not following their better impulses. People, feeling the pull of powerful feelings, may make mistakes during the litigation process. Just because you’ve failed to follow those better impulses in relation to a court case, that doesn’t necessary mean that those mistakes you’ve made necessarily equate to contempt of court, though.
What’s more, anytime you’re charged with contempt, you are entitled to due process of law. Just like family law litigants and their spouses, judges are human and have the potential to make mistakes under stressful circumstances. That’s one of the many reasons why you need to be sure you have a skilled South Florida family law attorney on your side: to be sure you are protected against an improper contempt citation.
Timothy and Jesica were two parents involved in just such a contentious case, which was a custody matter. The judge ordered the parents to keep “the case off social media and to prevent family members from publishing information about the custody action on social media.”
Several months later, the case again apparently made an appearance on social media, because the judge issued a “show cause” order on March 21, 2019, directed at Jessie, Timothy’s wife. A show cause order is an order in which the court directs the person to appear and show good cause why she/he should not be held in contempt of court.
The wife received the order on April 1, and the show cause hearing was scheduled for April 2. Jessie did the right thing – she hired an attorney right away. The lawyer appeared at the April 2 hearing and asked for dismissal or for a continuance. The judge denied all the requests, found the wife in indirect criminal contempt and ordered her jailed for five months in the Pasco County Jail. (“Indirect” criminal contempt means that it occurred outside the presence of the judge. In other words, telling the judge “You’re a bum!” in the middle of your hearing is direct contempt; posting “Judge Jane Doe is a bum!” on Facebook after your hearing is indirect.)
Due process and the Florida Rules require sufficient prep time… and a different judge
After five weeks in jail, Jessie was freed by an order of the appeals court. The appeals court concluded that the legal process that ended with the wife in the county jail was improper in many ways. For one thing, the law requires that court give you a “reasonable time” to prepare a defense, which this woman did not get. The evidence was undisputed that Jessie received the show cause order late in the afternoon on the day before her hearing and was not able to hire a lawyer until the morning of the hearing. That is not a reasonable time to prepare a defense against a charge of criminal contempt of court.
Also, this judge should have recused herself from hearing the contempt case. The contempt of which Jessie was accused was criticizing the judge on social media. Florida law says that, when a person is accused of contempt in the form of disrespect toward, or criticism of, a judge, that case must be tried by someone other than the judge who was criticized and/or disrespected. So, whether you call the judge “a bum” to her face or on Twitter, your contempt of court hearing should have a different judge presiding over it, in order to ensure both actual fairness and an absence of even the appearance of a less-than-fair hearing.
Obviously, one should strive to avoid needlessly insulting a judge, visibly flouting her authority by opening disobeying court orders… or otherwise disrespecting the court. It won’t help you and it won’t help your (or your loved one’s) court case. However, sometimes… stuff happens. To be sure you’re getting the full protection you deserve in your contempt case, contact the skillful South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our attorneys have been providing diligent advocacy in a wide array of family law cases, including contempt of court actions. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.