In re Contemnor Caron

Decision Date27 April 2000
Docket Number No. 92DR-04-2101, No. 99DP-04-427.
CourtOhio Court of Common Pleas

Andrea R. Yagoda, for relator.

Douglas B. Dougherty, for respondent-contemnor.


Background of Case

This is a case ("Caron IV") of indirect civil and criminal contempt of court. This opinion addresses the issue of contempt of court for child non-support in the consolidated domestic relations/parentage cases of Dennis T. Caron (the "father").

This marathon litigation began in April 1992, when the father of a then one-year-old boy filed a divorce action after one year of marriage and began a crusade to capture custody of his son. Throughout the life of the case, which before these post-decree proceedings lasted seven years until April 1999, when the Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the father's appeal, the father unsuccessfully litigated the issue of custody in the trial court, the court of appeals, and the Ohio Supreme Court. The mother was awarded custody in all rulings. Throughout the protracted proceedings, the father filed numerous tangent state and federal lawsuits against a multitude of persons, including attorneys and judges on the case. The father generated numerous affidavits of prejudice and disciplinary complaints against the five trial court judges who have presided over the case, including the author of this opinion. A review of the court journal reveals that the father's activities generated over 1,000 entries, causing both parties to incur many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Custody remains in the mother.

Upon dismissal of the domestic relations action by the Ohio Supreme Court in April 1999, affirming denial of custody to the father, he immediately filed a parentage action by which he attempts to disestablish his paternity and avoid his child support obligation of the now nine-year-old boy, despite the fact he acknowledged his legal status as father of the child more than a dozen times in the record of the domestic relations case. An order to show cause regarding civil and criminal contempt for non-payment of child support is before the court in these intertwined domestic relations and parentage cases. The paramount issue before this court is whether the father should be held in contempt of court for his refusal to pay child support. This is not Caron's first or even second rendezvous with the law of contempt. Caron v. Caron (Dec. 3, 1998), Franklin App. No. 98AP-369, unreported, 1998 WL 832163 ("Caron II"); Caron v. Manfresca (Sept. 23, 1999), Franklin App. No. 98AP-1399, unreported, 1999 WL 739570 ("Caron III"). The father defends upon the basis that until this juvenile court has ruled on his parentage action, he need not obey the domestic relations court order mandating the payment of child support. A court order mandating payment of child support is not stayed by the filing of a companion parentage action to disestablish paternity. His defense fails.

"Contempt of court is a mysterious and indefensible offense and as easy to commit as it is liable to speedy and deserved punishment." See the somewhat aged but comprehensive treatise National Lawyer's Manual: Contempt, by Edward M. Dangel (1939) (National Lawyer's Manual Company) ("NLM Contempt"), at 14.

Because many of the rules of contempt law, including the various classifications and due process rights of contempt hearings, are relevant to this case, it may be helpful to review the elusive law of contempt that is both of ancient origin and fundamental contemporary importance. This opinion will examine thoroughly the fundamental issues relating to the law of contempt of court.

Nature and Purpose of Contempt Law

Contempt of court is an act or omission that interferes with the administration of justice. Garner, Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (1995) (Oxford Univ. Press), at 211. Contempt of court is part of the lex terrae ("law of the land") within the meaning of the Magna Carta. Rex v. Almon, infra. The phrase "contemptus curiae" (contempt of court) has been a part of the common law since the twelfth century. Borrie & Lowe, Law of Contempt (2 Ed.1983). In 1258, Bracton said: "There is no greater crime than Contempt and Disobedience, for all persons within the Realm ought to be obedient to the King and within his Peace." Bracton's Notebook (1887) (F.W. Maitland Pub. Co.) The essence of the offense of contempt of court is the defiance of judicial authority. 13 A.L.R.4th 102, 108.

Contempt of court is an act or omission that interferes with the administration of justice, through conduct which disobeys judicial orders, shows disregard and disrespect for the authority and dignity of the law, or tends to embarrass, impede or obstruct the court in the performance of its functions. In re Green (1961), 172 Ohio St. 269, 15 O.O.2d 449, 175 N.E.2d 59 paragraph one of the syllabus, reversed on other grounds, In re Green (1962), 369 U.S. 689, 82 S.Ct. 1114, 8 L.Ed.2d 198; Windham Bank v. Tomaszczyk (1971), 27 Ohio St.2d 55, 56 O.O.2d 31, 271 N.E.2d 815, paragraph one of the syllabus; Denovchek v. Trumbull Cty. Bd. of Commrs. (1988), 36 Ohio St.3d 14, 15, 520 N.E.2d 1362, 1363-1364. The purpose of the law of contempt is to uphold and ensure the unimpeded and effective administration of justice, secure the dignity of the court, and affirm the fundamental supremacy of the law. Windham Bank, supra, paragraph two of the syllabus; Cramer v. Petrie (1994), 70 Ohio St.3d 131, 133, 637 N.E.2d 882, 884-885.

What is the nature of the public interest that is served by the law of contempt of court? The individual's right to a fair trial before a court of law is a fundamental right in a free society with a civilized system of justice. It is a basic tenet of an ordered society that to secure the right to a fair trial, it is essential to ensure public faith in the rule of law and the proper administration of justice. The law of contempt of court supports these truths by providing sanctions against misbehaviors that would undermine the guarantees of fair trial, result in disrespect for the rule of law, and cause lack of public confidence in the due administration of justice. "It is justice itself that is flouted by contempt of court, not the individual court or judge who is attempting to administer it." Atty.-Gen. v. Leveller Magazine (1979), A.C. 440, 449, 1 All E.R. 745, 749, HL, 1979 WL 68939, cited in Miller, Contempt of Court (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1989), at 1. "These [contempt] powers are given to the Judges to keep the course of justice free; powers of great importance to society, for by the exercise of them law and order prevail; those who are interested in wrong are shewn that the law is irresistible." Oswald, Contempt of Court, Committal, and Attachment and Arrest Upon Civil Process ("Contempt of Court"). In the Supreme Court of Judicature (Reprint 1997) (Gaunt, Inc.), at 8-9.

The term "contempt of court" has rightfully been criticized as misleading and inadequate to describe the gravity of the offense: "The phrase `contempt of court' does not in the least describe the true nature of the class of offence with which we are here concerned * * *. The offence consists in interfering with the administration of the law; in impeding and perverting the course of justice. * * * It is not the dignity of the Court which is offended—a petty and misleading view of the issues involved—it is the fundamental supremacy of the law which is challenged." Johnson v. Grant (Scotland 1923), S.C. 789, at 790, cited in Report of the Committee on Contempt of Court, presented to Parliament by the Lord High Chancellor and the Lord Advocate by Command of Her Majesty, December 1974, Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

What are the criteria for the "due administration of justice" that is protected by the offense of contempt of court? A contemporary English decision offers these requirements: "The due administration of justice requires first that all citizens should have unhindered access to the constitutionally established courts of criminal or civil jurisdiction for the determination of disputes as to their legal rights and liabilities; secondly, that they should be able to rely upon obtaining in the courts the arbitrament of a tribunal which is free from bias against any party and whose decision will be based upon those facts only that have been proved in evidence adduced before it in accordance with the procedure adopted in courts of law; and thirdly that, once the dispute has been submitted to a court of law, they should be able to rely upon there being no usurpation by any other person of the function of that court to decide it according to law. Conduct which is calculated to prejudice any of these requirements or to undermine the public confidence that they will be observed is contempt of court." Atty.-Gen. v. Times Newspapers, Ltd. (1973), A.C. 273, 309, 3 All E.R. 54, 72, HL, 1973 WL 39987, cited in Miller, Contempt of Court, supra, at 141. Take note that concern exists not only with conduct that is likely to cause interference with justice, but also with conduct that might undermine public confidence that the requirements of the due administration of justice will be observed.

Contempt proceedings are neither entirely civil nor entirely criminal, but instead are sui generis—special proceedings that may involve both civil and criminal characteristics. Gompers v. Buck's Stove & Range Co. (1911), 221 U.S. 418, 441, 31 S.Ct. 492, 498, 55 L.Ed. 797, 806: "Contempts are neither wholly civil nor altogether criminal. * * * It may partake of the characteristics of both." Blackmer v. United States (1932), 284 U.S. 421, 440, 52 S.Ct. 252, 255-256, 76 L.Ed. 375, 384; Brown v. Executive 200, Inc. (1980), 64 Ohio St.2d 250, 253, 18 O.O.3d 446, 448-449, 416 N.E.2d 610, 612-613; Denovchek, supra, at 16, 520 N.E.2d at 1364-1365. Although "[t]hey bear...

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