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Law School Case Brief

In re Little - 404 U.S. 553, 92 S. Ct. 659 (1972)

Rule:

The vehemence of the language used is not alone the measure of the power to punish for contempt. The fires which it kindles must constitute an imminent, not merely a likely, threat to the administration of justice. The danger must not be remote or even probable, it must immediately imperil. The law of contempt is not made for the protection of judges who may be sensitive to the winds of public opinion. Judges are supposed to be men of fortitude, able to thrive in a hardy climate. Trial courts must be on guard against confusing offenses to their sensibilities with obstruction to the administration of justice.

Facts:

In a District Court in Fayette County, North Carolina, the petitioner was tried for carrying a concealed weapon. Prior to trial, the petitioner moved for a continuance because his attorney had another trial engagement in a different city, but the trial judge denied the motion and proceeded with the trial, and the petitioner acted as his own attorney. In his summation following the close of the evidence, the petitioner stated that the court was biased and had prejudged the case, and that the petitioner was a political prisoner. As a result of these statements, the trial judge held the petitioner in contempt and sentenced him to 30 days in jail as summary punishment. A North Carolina Superior Court denied the petitioner's request for habeas corpus, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court denied review by certiorari. Petitioner appealed.

Issue:

By stating that the court was biased, should the petitioner be held in contempt?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court held that in the context of the case, the petitioner’s statement in summation did not constitute criminal contempt. According to the Court, the petitioner’s statements were not in a boisterous tone and did not actually disrupt the court proceeding. The district court's denial of the continuance forced the contemnor to argue his own cause, and he was therefore clearly entitled to as much latitude in conducting his defense as was enjoyed by an attorney vigorously espousing a client's cause.

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