Dodson, In re

Citation572 A.2d 328,214 Conn. 344
Decision Date27 March 1990
Docket NumberNo. 13622,13622
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesIn re Michael J. DODSON.

Brian M. O'Connell, Hartford, for appellant (petitioner).

Timothy J. Sugrue, Deputy Asst. State's Atty., for appellee (state).


ARTHUR H. HEALEY, Associate Justice.

The petitioner Michael J. Dodson has brought a writ of error to this court seeking a reversal of the Superior Court judgment finding him in contempt of court and imposing a fine of $100. The writ raises the issue of whether the petitioner's adjudication and punishment of summary criminal contempt comported with due process under the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution, 1 article first, § 8, of the Connecticut constitution 2 and §§ 985 and 988 of the Practice Book. 3

"The present case, which involves a review of a summary criminal contempt proceeding, comes before us on a writ of error which is the sole method of review of such proceedings. Whiteside v. State, 148 Conn. 77, 78-79, 167 A.2d 450 (1961); Goodhart v. State, 84 Conn. 60, 63, 78 A. 853 (1911). The scope of our review reaches only those matters appearing as of record. State v. Assuntino, 180 Conn. 345, 347, 429 A.2d 900 (1980); Reilly v. State, 119 Conn. 217, 223, 175 A. 582 (1934). In a review of summary criminal contempt, the inquiry is limited to a determination of the jurisdiction of the court below. Tyler v. Hammersley, 44 Conn. 393, 413 (1877). Subsumed in this inquiry are three questions, namely, (1) whether the designated conduct is legally susceptible of constituting a contempt; Goodhart v. State, supra; (2) whether the punishment imposed was authorized by law; State v. Jackson, 147 Conn. 167, 169, 158 A.2d 166 (1960); and (3) whether the judicial authority was qualified to conduct the hearing. Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, 400 U.S. 455, 465-66, 91 S.Ct. 499 [504-505], 27 L.Ed.2d 532 (1971)." Moore v. State, 186 Conn. 256, 257, 440 A.2d 969 (1982).

The record discloses, inter alia, the following. On November 10, 1988, the petitioner, an attorney admitted to the practice of law in Connecticut, was representing Michael Walker 4 at a sentencing hearing before the Honorable James Higgins in the Superior Court. During the course of that hearing, and immediately following the imposition of sentence, the following took place between the court and the petitioner:

"Mr. Dodson: I think it is most unusual. I think that is totally outrageous. The court can do-- "The Court: You may notify the defendant--

"Mr. Dodson: Thirty years more on the same set of facts, I think ...

"The Court: Notify the defendant of his rights to appeal.

"Mr. Dodson: There is no basis--

"The Court: You're out of order.

"Mr. Dodson: I know I am, but there is no basis for that sentence.

"The Court: He is held in contempt of this court.

"Mr. Dodson: I apologize for my remarks.

"The Court: Notify the defendant of his rights to appeal on the record."

The court thereupon took a recess. The petitioner was asked to remain in the courtroom and was allowed access to a telephone to obtain counsel. Shortly thereafter, Attorney Gerald Klein arrived at Judge Higgins' chambers to indicate that he represented the petitioner. At that time, Klein was shown a copy of the transcript of the prior proceedings that had already been prepared. The court was prepared to continue and finish the summary contempt proceedings at that time. A request for a continuance, made by Klein, was granted to Tuesday, November 15, 1988. (November 11, 1988, a Friday, was a holiday and there was no court on November 14, 1988, the following Monday, due to the Connecticut State Bar Association meeting.)

On Tuesday, November 15, 1988, the court held a hearing at which the petitioner appeared with Klein. After the court inquired whether the petitioner wished to be heard, both Klein and the petitioner addressed the court. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court imposed a fine of $100. This writ of error by the petitioner followed.

The petitioner maintains that his conduct in open court on November 10, 1988, did not constitute a contempt within the meaning of Practice Book § 985. This rule states that "criminal contempt is conduct that is directed against the dignity and authority of the court." See State v. Jackson, supra. In denying the applicability of § 985, the petitioner points to Practice Book § 986 5 which provides who may be punished for criminal contempt. He contends that his conduct does not place him within any portion of § 986, which, he says, must involve not only an act that "disturbs" the dignity and authority of the court, but must also be directed against it. His conduct, he asserts, does not reflect an intent to disobey the rules or orders of the court but rather "the record clearly depicts [him] in the role of an advocate, engaged in the representation of a client." His "statement" did not, he maintains, "interrupt the Court in its pronouncement of sentence, but rather occurred after the court had recited all penalties and imposed costs." Moreover, the petitioner claims that "his forbearance clearly belies any claim that his intention was to disrupt the proceedings at hand." In addition, he claims that it cannot be "alleged" that he violated any procedural rule restricting an attorney's opportunity to address the court subsequent to the imposition of sentence. In a word, his conduct, from his perspective, was confined to his legal responsibility of providing effective representation. We hold nonetheless that the petitioner's conduct constituted a contempt under § 985.


Since we speak of criminal contempt as conduct against the dignity and authority of the court, it is useful briefly to articulate the concepts of dignity and authority encompassed in this context. The expression "dignity of the court" proclaims a demand, to all dealing with the court, for proper respect and obedience in its function of interpreting, administering and enforcing the law within its authority to do so. See generally Brannon v. State, 202 Miss. 571, 582, 29 So.2d 916 (1947). "Authority" can be and has been said to mean the "[r]ight to exercise powers; to implement and enforce laws; to exact obedience; to command; to judge.... [It is] [o]ften synonymous with power." Black's Law Dictionary (5th Ed.) In a free society, the courtroom "is a forum for the courteous and reasoned pursuit of truth and justice." Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U.S. 488, 503, 94 S.Ct. 2697, 2706, 41 L.Ed.2d 897 (1974). These concepts meaningfully embody that view of dignity and authority that should attend the proper, independent and fair discharge by the court of its duties under the rule of law. That view is hardly to be implemented platitudinally here, but in the warp and the woof of due process of law.

It is also useful to note at this point that where summary contempt is involved, the United States Supreme Court has indicated that it is wary of the power and cognizant of its potential for abuse. It, therefore, became established early in American jurisprudence that contempt limits a court in such cases to "the least possible power adequate to the end proposed." Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 204, 231, 5 L.Ed. 242 (1821), 6 quoted, inter alia, in In re Michael, 326 U.S. 224, 227, 66 S.Ct. 78, 79, 90 L.Ed. 30 (1945); In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 274, 68 S.Ct. 499, 508, 92 L.Ed. 682 (1948); Harris v. United States, 382 U.S. 162, 165, 86 S.Ct. 352, 354, 15 L.Ed.2d 240 (1965); Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364, 371, 86 S.Ct. 1531, 1536, 16 L.Ed. 2d 622 (1966). The purposes, nevertheless, of a criminal contempt order are to punish willful disregard of the authority of the court and to deter the occurrence of similar derelictions. United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 302-303, 67 S.Ct. 677, 700-701, 91 L.Ed. 884 (1947); In re Irving, 600 F.2d 1027, 1037 (2d Cir.1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 866, 100 S.Ct. 137, 62 L.Ed.2d 89 (1979). Only recently, the United States Supreme Court has observed that "[t]he underlying concern that gave rise to the contempt power was not, however, merely the disruption of court proceedings. Rather, it was disobedience to the orders of the judiciary, regardless of whether such disobedience interfered with the conduct of trial." Young v. United States ex rel. Vuitton et Fils S.A., 481 U.S. 787, 798, 107 S.Ct. 2124, 2132, 95 L.Ed.2d 740 (1987). 7

There can be little doubt that an attorney may be, and should be, zealous in his representation of a client and "[f]ull enjoyment of that right, with due allowance for the heat of controversy, will be protected by appellate courts when infringed by trial courts." Sacher v. United States, 343 U.S. 1, 9, 72 S.Ct. 451, 455, 96 L.Ed. 717 (1952); see People v. DeJesus, 42 N.Y.2d 519, 369 N.E.2d 752, 399 N.Y.S.2d 196 (1977). "The arguments of a lawyer in presenting his client's case strenuously and persistently cannot amount to a contempt of court so long as the lawyer does not in some way create an obstruction which blocks the judge in the performance of his judicial duty." In re McConnell, 370 U.S. 230, 236, 82 S.Ct. 1288, 1292, 8 L.Ed.2d 434 (1962); In re Meizlish, 72 Mich.App. 732, 736, 250 N.W.2d 525 (1977). The attorney's right to be zealous, vigorous, persistent and complete in the representation of a client is not, however, unlimited. That representation must be within the bounds of the law. "[A]n attorney as an officer of the court should be held to a higher standard of courtroom conduct than a layman." Commonwealth v. Stevenson, 482 Pa. 76, 90, 393 A.2d 386 (1978). As an officer of the court, he must "preserve and promote the efficient operation of our system of justice." Chapman v. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., 613 F.2d 193, 197 (9th Cir.1979); see Maness v. Meyers, 419 U.S. 449, 95 S.Ct. 584, 42 L.Ed.2d 574 (1975); ...

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