Bloom v. State of Illinois

Decision Date20 May 1968
Docket NumberNo. 52,52
PartiesS. Edward BLOOM, Petitioner, v. STATE OF ILLINOIS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Anthony Bradley Eben, Chicago, Ill., for petitioner.

Edward J. Hladis, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted in an Illinois state court of criminal contempt and sentenced to imprisonment for 24 months for willfully petitioning to admit to probate a will falsely prepared and executed after the death of the putative testator. Petitioner made a timely demand for jury trial which was refused. Since in Duncan v. State of Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491, the Constitution was held to guarantee the right to jury trial in serious criminal cases in state courts, we must now decide whether it also guarantees the right to jury trial for a criminal contempt punished by a two-year prison term.


Whether federal and state courts may try criminal contempt cases without a jury has been a recurring question in this Court. Article III, § 2, of the Constitution provides that '(t)he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury * * *.' The Sixth Amendment states that '(i)n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury * * *.' The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid both the Federal Government and the States from depriving any person of 'life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.' Notwithstanding these provisions, until United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681, 84 S.Ct. 984, 12 L.Ed.2d 23, rehearing denied, 377 U.S. 973, 84 S.Ct. 1642, 12 L.Ed.2d 742 (1964), the Court consistently upheld the constitutional power of the state and federal courts to punish any criminal contempt without a jury trial. Eilenbecker v. District Court of Plymouth County, 134 U.S. 31, 36—39, 10 S.Ct. 424, 426—427, 33 L.Ed. 801 (1890); I.C.C. v. Brimson, 154 U.S. 447, 488—489, 14 S.Ct. 1125, 1137—1138, 38 L.Ed. 1047 (1894); In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 594—596, 15 S.Ct. 900, 910—911, 39 L.Ed. 1092 (1895); Gompers v. United States, 233 U.S. 604, 610—611, 34 S.Ct. 693, 695—696, 58 L.Ed. 1115 (1914); Green v. United States, 356 U.S. 165, 183—187, 78 S.Ct. 632, 642—645, 2 L.Ed.2d 672 (1958).1 These cases construed the Due Process Clause and the otherwise inclusive language of Article III and the Sixth Amendment as permitting summary trials in contempt cases because at common law contempt was tried without a jury and because the power of courts to punish for contempt without the intervention of any other agency was considered essential to the proper and effective functioning of the courts and to the administration of justice.

United States v. Barnett, supra, signaled a possible change of view. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit certified to this Court the question whether there was a right to jury trial in an impending contempt proceeding. Following prior cases, a five-man majority held that there was no constitutional right to jury trial in all contempt cases. Criminal contempt, intrinsically and aside from the particular penalty imposed, was not deemed a serious offense requiring the protection of the constitutional guarantees of the right to jury trial. However, the Court put aside as not raised in the certification or firmly settled by prior cases, the issue whether a severe punishment would itself trigger the right to jury trial and indicated, without explication, that some members of the Court were of the view that the Constitution limited the punishment which could be imposed where the contempt was tried without a jury. 376 U.S., at 694—695 and n. 12, 84 S.Ct. at 991—992.

Two years later, in Cheff v. Schnackenberg, 384 U.S. 373, 86 S.Ct. 1523, 16 L.Ed.2d 629 (1966), which involved a prison term of six months for contempt of a federal court, the Court rejected the claim that the Constitution guaranteed a right to jury trial in all criminal contempt cases. Contempt did not 'of itself' warrant treatment as other than a petty offense; the six months' punishment imposed permitted dealing with the case as a prosecution for 'a petty offense, which under our decisions does not require a jury trial.' 384 U.S. 373, 379—380, 86 S.Ct. 1523, 1525 (1966). See Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, 88 S.Ct. 1301, 32 L.Ed. 223 (1888); Schick v. United States, 195 U.S. 65, 24 S.Ct. 826, 49 L.Ed. 99 (1904); District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 57 S.Ct. 660, 81 L.Ed. 843 (1937). It was not necessary in Cheff to consider whether the constitutional guarantees of the right to jury trial applied to a prosecution for a serious contempt. Now, however, because of our holding in Duncan v. State of Louisiana, supra, that the right to jury trial extends to the States, and because of Bloom's demand for a jury in this case, we must once again confront the broad rule that all criminal contempts can be constitutionally tried without a jury. Barnett presaged a re-examination of this doctrine at some later time; that time has now arrived.

In proceeding with this task, we are acutely aware of the responsibility we assume in entertaining challenges to a constitutional principle which is firmly entrenched and which has behind it weighty and ancient authority. Our deliberations have convinced us, however, that serious contempts are so nearly like other serious crimes that they are subject to the jury trial provisions of the Constitution, now binding on the States, and that the traditional rule is constitutionally infirm insofar as it permits other than petty contempts to be tried without honoring a demand for a jury trial. We accept the judgment of Barnett and Cheff that criminal contempt is a petty offense unless the punishment makes it a serious one; but, in our view, dispensing with the jury in the trial of contempts subjected to severe punishment represents an unacceptable construction of the Constitution, 'an unconstitutional assumption of powers by the (courts) which no lapse of time or respectable array of opinion should make us hesitate to correct.' Black & White Taxicab & Transfer Co. v. Brown & Yellow Taxicab Transfer Co., 276 U.S. 518, 533, 48 S.Ct. 404, 408, 72 L.Ed. 681 (1928) (Holmes, J., dissenting). The rule of our prior cases has strong, though sharply challenged, historical support;2 but neither this circumstance nor the considera- tions of necessity and efficiency normally offered in defense of the established rule, justify denying a jury trial in serious criminal contempt cases. The Constitu- tion guarantees the right to jury trial in state court prosecutions for contempt just as it does for other crimes.


Criminal contempt is a crime in the ordinary sense; it is a violation of the law, a public wrong which is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. In the words of Mr. Justice Holmes:

'These contempts are infractions of the law, visited with punishment as such. If such acts are not criminal, we are in error as to the most fundamental characteristic of crimes as that word has been understood in English speech.' Gompers v. United States, 233 U.S. 604, 610, 34 S.Ct. 693, 695, 58 L.Ed. 1115 (1914).3

Criminally contemptuous conduct may violate other provisions of the criminal law; but even when this is not the case convictions for criminal contempt are indistinguishable from ordinary criminal convictions, for their impact on the individual defendant is the same. Indeed, the role of criminal contempt and that of many ordinary criminal laws seem identical—protection of the institutions of our government and enforcement of their mandates.

Given that criminal contempt is a crime in every fundamental respect, the question is whether it is a crime to which the jury trial provisions of the Constitution apply. We hold that it is, primarily because in terms of those considerations which make the right to jury trial fundamental in criminal cases, there is no substantial difference between serious contempts and other serious crimes. Indeed, in contempt cases an even more compelling argument can be made for providing a right to jury trial as a protection against the arbitrary exercise of official power. Contemptuous conduct, though a public wrong, often strikes at the most vulnerable and human qualities of a judge's temperament. Even when the contempt is not a direct insult to the court or the judge, it frequently represents a rejection of judicial authority, or an interference with the judicial process or with the duties of officers of the court.

The court has long recognized the potential for abuse in exercising the summary power to imprison for contempt—it is an 'arbitrary' power which is 'liable to abuse.' Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289, 313, 9 S.Ct. 77, 82, 32 L.Ed. 405 (1888). '(I)ts exercise is a delicate one, and care is needed to avoid arbitrary or oppressive conclusions.' Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517, 539, 45 S.Ct. 390, 396, 69 L.Ed. 767 (1925).4

These apprehensions about the unbridled power to punish summarily for contempt are reflected in the march of events in both Congress and the courts since our Constitution was adopted. The federal courts were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789; § 17 of the Act provided that those courts 'shall have power to * * * punish by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any cause or hearing before the same * * *.' 1 Stat. 83. See Anderson v Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204, 227—228, 5 L.Ed. 242 (1821). This open-ended authority to deal with contempt, limited only as to mode of punishment, proved unsatisfactory to Congress. Abuses under the 1789 Act culminated in the unsuccessful impeachment proceedings against James Peck, a federal district judge who had imprisoned and disbarred one Lawless for publishing a criticism of one of Peck's opinions in a case which was on appeal. The result was drastic curtailment of the contempt...

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