e CommonSense: Abuse of Contempt Power

Friday, December 02, 2005

Abuse of Contempt Power

You have to wonder what the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct would think of a judge who holds a man in prison for over ten years without an evidentiary hearing. As they investigate Judge Clouse, is the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board looking into the Beatty Chadwick story?

Unruly Litigants Should Get a Warning and a Chance to Speak, Conduct Panel Finds

Holding someone in contempt is usually a judge’s last resort, but a New York disciplinary commission felt that was not so in two cases in which judges were disciplined for issuing summary contempt orders.

In one instance, Judge Duane A. Hart issued a contempt order against business litigant John Modica after his lawyer, Leland L. Greene, tried to get into the record that the judge threatened to have his client arrested the day before. The judge made the threat when Modica approached Hart in a parking lot to ask for a continuation after the judge had denied the same request in court.

. . .

The commission sanctioned Hart with censure.

"We find the respondent’s misconduct particularly troubling notwithstanding that later that same day, at the conclusion of trial, he corrected his injudicious decision by vacating the contempt finding," the commission wrote. "Several factors have persuaded us that a severe sanction is appropriate in this case."

The other matter involved Judge Richard S. Lawrence of the Nassau County Family Court. A party in a child support dispute repeatedly and audibly sighed and was fidgety in the judge’s courtroom, according to the commission’s findings.

Two court officers repeatedly warned Mark Schulman about his conduct. When Schulman’s behavior continued, Lawrence issued a contempt order, stipulating that Schulman be jailed for five days. Schulman protested, and Lawrence upped the time to 10 days.

David Teeter, Schulman’s Garden City, N.Y.-based lawyer, interjected, and Lawrence raised Schulman’s sentence to 12 days. Then he told the court officers to remove Schulman.

The commission gave Lawrence, who acknowledged that he didn’t give Schulman the proper warning, an admonition. That finding was also released Oct. 20.

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