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You are in Contempt!

The greatest song about being in contempt is Jerry Reed’s “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” It hit Number Nine on the country charts and got some pop play as well.

jerry reedI said, “Well, I’ll tell ya one thing, judge, old buddy, old pal
If you wasn’t wearin’ that black robe
I’d take out in back of this courthouse
And I’d try a little bit of your honor on”

“You understand that, you hillbilly?
Who gonna collect my welfare?
Pay for my Cadillac?
Whadda you mean ‘Contempt of Court’?
Judge, oh, judge, judgie poo”

When the judge says you are in contempt, for doing, or not doing, whatever it is that is causing the problem, what does that mean?

Essentially it means that the judge has decided that you are disrupting court or disobeying a court order and that you need an incentive to comply with the court’s direction. Different courts have different powers. It can be a fine, sanction or even jail. When I was magistrate judge, I had the power to put someone in jail for up to 10 days for contempt.

My favorite contempt was a fellow I’ll call him Mr. Tenant, who had just won a dispossessory case against his landlord. Despite winning, apparently he wanted more than I gave him. I had issued my order from the bench but the tenant stood up and interrupted me, insisting he wanted more. He proceeded to explain, rather nicely actually, why he should get more. We had some back and forth discussion, no problem. I then said that despite his argument, I was holding to my decision. He then stood up again and said he wasn’t finished. His complaining was not directed at me, actually he was fussing at his landlord. I told him to sit down but he refused. I told him that if he didn’t sit down, I was going to hold him in contempt.

That is when the fun started.

He started pulling off his jewelry, took his wallet out of his pocket, removed his belt and so forth. That was a tale-tale sign that he was getting ready to go to jail.

I granted his wish and ordered him held in contempt. I don’t recall if I said for how long he was to be incarcerated, but I then exited the courtroom so the bailiffs could handle business. At the old magistrate court, my office was directly connected to the courtroom. I could hear the commotion going on. Mr. Tenant apparently wasn’t going to go to jail easily. Ambulances and fire trucks showed up. The deputy came in and asked me what I wanted to do with Mr. Tenant, who was feigning medical problems. I said he had to go to jail. The deputy pleaded with me to let him go home, whereupon I suggested to the deputy that he could go to jail in Mr. Tenant’s place. The deputy declined that offer and Mr. Tenant went to jail.

I ordered him to be released a few hours later. I never heard from him again but at least he has a story to tell, just like ol’ Jerry Reed.

Kelly Burke, master attorney, former district attorney and magistrate judge, is engaged in private practice. He writes about the law, rock’n’roll and politics. These articles are not designed to give legal advice, but are designed to inform the public about how the law affects their daily lives. Contact Kelly at to comment on this article or suggest articles that you’d like to see and visit his website at to view prior columns.

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