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Law School Case Brief

Anyanwu v. Anyanwu - 339 N.J. Super. 278, 771 A.2d 672 (Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001)


While it is inaccurate to bifurcate the legal concept of contempt into "civil contempt" and "criminal contempt," common legal parlance uses the terms to distinguish between coercive measures by a court to force compliance by a recalcitrant party and punitive sanctions to vindicate the authority of the court. Civil contempt is not punitive but remedial to a litigant's right to compel a recalcitrant party to do what he ought to do. For this reason civil contemnors are said to carry the keys to the prison in their own pockets. Since the legal justification for incarceration for civil contempt is to force compliance, commitment for that purpose cannot continue if it does not have or has lost its coercive power and thereby has become punitive.


The parties were married in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 25, 1984. Their two children were born in the United States, and had dual citizenship with Nigeria. By 1996, there were significant marital problems. Defendant husband filed for a divorce in Nigeria in August 1996, although plaintiff wife contended that she was never served. In June of 1997, the parties and their children traveled to Nigeria. Claiming that she was in fear for her physical safety, she returned alone to the United States. Plaintiff wife filed a complaint, and a temporary restraining order directing defendant to return the children to plaintiff's custody. Defendant was served with the order after his return from Nigeria. Following several hearings and divorce proceedings, defendant was ordered to produce the children before the court. Defendant was subsequently incarcerated for refusing to make efforts to produce the children. After four years, defendant was released from custody, and plaintiff appealed. 


Did the trial court misapply the standard for discharge from confinement pursuant to an order of commitment directing compliance with an earlier court order?




The appellate court found that the trial judge misapplied the standard for discharge from confinement pursuant to an order of commitment directing compliance with an earlier court order. The review hearing conducted fell short of the requirements set forth in prior case law, which required that  the contemnor had the burden of proving that continued confinement had no coercive effect and had become punitive. The case required that the burden be satisfied by competent proofs as opposed to ex parte affidavits and reports. Factual issues were to be resolved only through live testimony and cross-examination. There was no live testimony presented at the review hearing, and the only new submissions were two unauthenticated letters containing hearsay statements and opinions of uncertain reliability and credibility. The hearing was therefore inadequate, necessitating a remand for a hearing consistent with the requirements of live testimony and competent evidence. The trial court's reliance only on the duration of confinement and the perceived refusal of defendant to comply was insufficient to carry the requisite burden of proof and persuasion. As such, the judgment was reversed.

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