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A Most Uncivil Contempt

Most states have no limits on how long a witness or defendant can be held in civil contempt. Perhaps they should.
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This past July, when a Philadelphia lawyer named H. Beatty Chadwick walked out of a Pennsylvania jail after serving 14 years for civil contempt — the longest such sentence in American legal history — the unique circumstances of his story initiated a brief flurry of articles in the national and local media.

In 1995, Chadwick had been involved in a divorce proceeding during which he claimed he had lost a fortune of $2.5 million his soon-to-be ex-wife sought in a financial settlement. The court did not believe Chadwick, found him in contempt and ordered him jailed until he came up with the cash.

A decade and a half later, after Chadwick had been disbarred and the case had gone through a slew of lawyers and appeals (including two to the U.S. Supreme Court), a judge finally ordered him released because "if, during the period of civil incarceration a court concludes that future imprisonment will not induce compliance, the imprisonment is no longer coercive, becomes punitive and the petitioner must be released."

Well, no kidding.

Of course, the question arises why the court didn't figure this out after, say, two years. Or five. Or 10. In fact, none of the stories after Chadwick got out of jail (The Wall Street Journal did one while he was still incarcerated) asked the most salient questions of all: Why did something like this happen? And how could this happen? How could an American citizen spend 14 years in jail without being charged with a crime or undergoing a jury trial?

"Any time civil contempt is used except for the shortest time, it's almost always abused," says attorney Ronald Goldfarb, author of the The Contempt Power (which is currently out of print). "Once it becomes a punishment and not an inducement to do something, it is an offense, and the person should be tried for it. It should be a finite punishment."

That's the conundrum of civil contempt, which is most often used to coerce a parent to pay child support or a husband to cough up alimony, but can also be imposed to force a reporter to reveal their sources (as in the Judith Miller case) or a witness to testify.

But unlike criminal contempt, which is used to punish bad behavior such as threatening a witness and which affords the defendant the right to a jury trial, civil "contemnors" can free themselves from jail by simply complying with a court order, so they are not given the same due process rights as criminal defendants.

In most civil contempt cases, this is no big deal. Deadbeat dad rots in jail for a few days or weeks, then comes up with the cash the court has ordered him to pay, and he's free. But in some cases, like Chadwick's, the defendant is either unable to comply with the order, or so willfully noncompliant, he can rot in prison for a very long time:

• When investment manager Martin Armstrong failed to produce $15 million in gold and antiquities in a civil suit alleging security fraud, he spent seven years in prison.

• When Arizona businessman Manuel Osete failed to pony up more than $800,000 in assets during a divorce proceeding, he spent nearly three years in the slammer. Shortly before he was released — after his siblings agreed to sell a jointly held property — the state's Supreme Court instituted a new rule: Civil contempt decisions in family-law cases had to be reviewed in court every 35 days.

• And Florida options trader Stephan Jay Lawrence went to jail for six years when he refused a judge's order to cough up money in an offshore trust fund.

Not that there aren't certain limits. Federal law mandates civil contempt incarceration can last no longer than the length of a grand jury, which is 18 months. And individual states, like North Carolina, which limits civil contempt to successive sentences of 90 days, not to exceed a total of 12 months, have set a cap on these penalties.

Yet in the states where civil contempt can lead to open-ended sentences, and in the legal profession as a whole, the issue of what one commentator has referred to as "the power of a judge to imprison without recourse" seems to be an afterthought.

Neither the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers nor the National Center for State Courts could provide a person willing or able (it was unsure which) to comment on this subject. The dean of one major Philadelphia law school, while declining an interview via e-mail, noted that "everything I know about this topic could be stated in under a minute." And a spokesperson for the NCSC said there were not even any law review articles addressing the subject.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Chadwick, Osete and their ilk are simply incredibly spiteful humans who will do anything to hide assets they believe belong to them and are not deserving of anyone's sympathy. And there is little doubt that abuses of the Chadwick variety are extremely rare. But if this is, as we are constantly reminded, a nation of laws, then it seems this is one law that needs adjusting.

"There should be a right to trial when anyone is sentenced," says Goldfarb, who adds that even though such cases are "infrequent, it is a continuing injustice that does go on."

Or look at it this way: Under Pennsylvania law, there is a concept called murder of the 3rd degree, which involves a crime like a drug delivery that results in a death. The penalty is a mandatory five years. Nine years less than H. Beatty Chadwick served, and the only thing he killed was a lot of time.

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