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The face-to-face refusal to comply with the court's order itself constituted an affront to the court, and when that kind of refusal disrupts and frustrates an ongoing proceeding, summary contempt must be available to vindicate the authority of the court as well as to provide the recalcitrant witness with some incentive to testify. Whether such incentive is necessary in a particular case is a matter Fed. R. Crim. P. 42 wisely leaves to the discretion of the trial court.
Respondents, who had been charged, along with one Anderson, in separate indictments for separate bank robberies and who pleaded guilty, were summoned as prosecution witnesses at Anderson's trial but refused to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds and still refused to do so after being granted immunity and ordered to testify. The District Court then summarily held them in contempt under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 42(a), which permits summary criminal contempt punishment "if the judge certifies that he saw or heard the conduct constituting the contempt and that it was committed in the actual presence of the court." The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the use of the summary contempt power under Rule 42(a) was improper, and remanded for proceedings under Rule 42(b), which calls for disposition of criminal contempt only after notice and hearing and "a reasonable time for the preparation of the defense."
May a district court impose summary contempt punishment under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 42 (a) when a witness who has been granted immunity, refuses on Fifth Amendment grounds to testify?
Reversing the appellate court, the Court held that respondents' refusals to answer, although not delivered disrespectfully, plainly fell within the express language of Rule 42(a). Rule 42(a) was never intended to be limited to situations where a witness used scurrilous language or physically disrupted a trial. All that was necessary was that the judge certify that he saw or heard the conduct constituting the contempt and that it was committed in the actual presence of the court. The refusals were contemptuous of judicial authority because they were intentional obstructions of court proceedings that literally disrupted the progress of the trial and hence the orderly administration of justice.