Clarifying the Distinction Between Civil and Criminal Contempt: Problems of Prospective Penalties and Excessive Fines


Linda S Mullenix

3 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 360


This article previews the issues and arguments in United Mine Workers v. John L. Bagwell, on the Supreme Court’s 1993-94 appellate docket. Last term the Supreme Court's major remedies case examined whether a $10 million punitive damages award was excessive in relation to a $19,000 actual damage award. This Term the Supreme Court continues its consideration of federal court remedies and will tackle the difficult and obscure distinction between civil and criminal contempt. Also, the Court will again examine whether certain penalties are constitutionally excessive.

The primary issue the Court will address is whether contempt fines are civil or criminal in nature when the judge, during the course of a labor strike, announced that the unions' failure to obey the court's injunctive order to conduct its strike lawfully would result in scheduled penalties for future violations. In addition, the Court may also consider whether $52 million in civil contempt fines that were imposed on the unions were excessive fines under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

When any person involved in litigation violates a judge’s orders during the course of litigation, the judge has the power to hold that person in contempt. Clarifying the distinction between civil and criminal contempt is extremely important because one variety carries with it constitutional protections, while the other doesn't. If a judge is going to sanction someone for criminal contempt and either fine or jail the offender, that person is entitled to certain protections before the court can impose the criminal contempt - most importantly a trial by jury. But if the judge contemplates holding someone in civil contempt, the law does not require elaborate constitutional protections.

In United Mine Workers v. Bagwell, the Court is being asked to clarify whether a judge's imposition of prospective penalties is civil or criminal in nature.Superficially, United Mine Workers v. Bagwell appears to be a case in which the Supreme Court will determine whether a big whopping fine against the UMW will be allowed to stand, and whether the Court will vindicate the dignity of the Russell County Circuit Court and the citizens of southwestern Virginia. But whether the UMW does or does not have to pay an enormous set of fines from its union coffers is not the important issue in this case. Bagwell is a highly significant case of constitutional dimension because the facts leading to the court's imposition of these penalties stretch the boundaries surrounding civil and criminal contempt.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Clarifying the Distinction Between Civil and Criminal Contempt: Problems of Prospective Penalties and Excessive Fines, 1993-94 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 87.