People ex rel. Munsell v. Court of Oyer

Decision Date19 January 1886
Citation4 N.E. 259,101 N.Y. 245
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Delancey Nicoll, for appellant.

Ira Shafer, for respondent.


The occasion and results of proceedings for contempt furnish a clear and well-defined line of division, separating them into two classes, which have become somewhat mingled and confused by the use of a fixed but ambiguous nomenclature. In re Watson, 4 Lans. 470. There may prove to be rare and exceptional cases which do not easily fall within either class, or some which so commingle the characteristics of both as to make their location doubtful and difficult; but, in the main, the division is exhaustive and clear. In one class are grouped cases whose occasion is an injury or wrong done to a party who is a suitor before the court, and has established a claim upon its protection; and which result in a money indemnity to the litigant, or a compulsory act or omission enforced for his benefit. In these cases the authority of the court is indeed vindicated, but it is, after a manner, lent to the suitor for his safety, and vindicated for his sole benefit. The authority is exerted in his behalf as a private individual, and the fine imposed is measured by his loss, and goes to him as indemnity; and imprisonment, if ordered, is awarded, not as a punishment, but as a means to an end; and that end, the benefit of the suitor in some act or omission compelled, which is essential to his particular rights of person or of property. This clearly appears from the mode of enforcing the suitor's remedy prescribed by the statute. Code Civil Proc. §§ 2284, 2285. A fine may be imposed to indemnify his actual loss. Where such is not shown, the fine must not exceed his costs and expenses, and $250 in addition thereto, and in both cases be paid over to the suitor. The imprisonment, where the act or duty can yet be performed, must end with the performance of the act and payment of the fine; but if the act or duty cannot be performed, then the imprisonment must not exceed six months and until the fine be paid. In this last provision there is a trace of the element of punishment; but it is for the violation of the private right of the party, and to check similar violations in the future, and has no respect to public offenses or the vindication of public wrongs. The people may be such a party; but only when, like individuals, they are seeking a civil right or remedy which the misconduct complained of tends to defeat or impede; in other words, when they stand in the attitude of private suitors, seeking to enforce their private rights. If, in this class of cases, there exist traces of a vindication of public authority, they are but faint, and utterly lost in the characteristic, which is strongly predominant, of protection to private rights imperiled, or indemnity for such rights defeated. These cases have been usually described as proceedings for the enforcement of civil remedies, and, more briefly, as civil contempts, and because the great volume of instances occur in the progress of civil actions; but they may also occur in criminal actions or proceedings, as we shall presently see, and constitute then what I imagine the learned counsel for the appellant had in his mind when he spoke of quasi civil contempts.’ If we describe this first class of contempts as private contempts, because their occasion and result is, primarily, and in the main, the vindication of private rights, we shall avoid confusion or misapprehension.

The second class of contempts are those whose cause and result are a violation of the rights of the public as represented by their constituted legal tribunals, and a punishment for the wrong in the interest of public justice, and not in the interest of an individual litigant. In these cases, if a fine is imposed, its maximum is limited by a fixed general law, and not at all by the needs of individuals; and its proceeds, when collected, go into the public treasury, and not into the purse of an individual suitor. The fine is punishment, rather than indemnity, and if imprisonment is added it is in the interest of public justice, and purely as a penalty, and not at all as a means of securing indemnity to an individual. Necessarily, these contempts, in their origin and punishment, partake of the nature of crimes, which are violations of the public law, and end in the vindication of public justice, and hence are named ‘criminal contempts.’ As described in the statute, an element of willfulness or of evil intention enters into and characterizes them. They are a disturbance of the court, which interferes with its performance of duty as a judicial tribunal; willful disobedience to its lawful mandate; resistance to such mandate, willfully offered; contumacious and unlawful refusal to be sworn as a witness, or to answer a proper question; and publication of a false and grossly inaccurate report of its proceedings. These cases and their punishment are placed under the head of ‘general powers of the courts and their attributes;’ and they very evidently relate to public offenses tending to cast discredit upon the administration of public justice, and having no reference to the particular rights of suitors. But here, again, we find that they occur as well in civil as in criminal actions, and so, for convenience, we may speak of them, in view of the present classification, as public contempts, although the established legal nomenclature must remain unchanged.

We have, then, two distinct classes-private contempts and public contempts-with which we are to deal, for the purposes of this case. Both were known to and recognized by the common law, and the courts were held to possess an inherent power of punishing, by process of contempt, any disregard of their authority, both for the benefit of their suitors, and for the protection of their own order and dignity. Necessarily, the common-law power was very broad, and vested large discretion in the courts. These became, in some instances, both accuser and judge, and this was especially so where the contempt was of a public nature, and no private person stood as complainant and sufferer. When the Revised Statutes were enacted, an evident effort was made to codify the law of contempt, and bring, it within definite and fixed rules, (1 Rev. St. 534, § 1; 278, § 10;) and the effort plainly recognized the difference between the two classes. The first, or private contempts, were described as those ‘by which the rights or remedies of a party, in a cause or matter depending in such court, may be defeated, impaired, impeded, or prejudiced in the following cases.’ After a very careful and specific enumeration it was still recognized that, in the multitude of private rights, other and unnamed cases might occur, and to meet that emergency subdivision 8 was added, which retained the power, in ‘all other cases where attachments and proceedings as for contempts have been usually adopted and practiced in courts of record, to enforce the civil remedies of any party to a suit in such court, or to protect the rights of any such party.’ By this clause the common-law right as to private contempts was preserved outside of and beyond the statute enumeration, and this was deemed safe and prudent, because, in cases affecting only private rights, and of wrongs done merely to the suitor, the courts would be under little or no temptation to unduly strain or exercise their power. But the situation was entirely different as to public contempts. As to these, the court contemned was the court which adjudged and punished; and that, summarily and without the intervention of a jury. Here precise limitations were needed, and any shred or remnant of undefined common-law power was deemed dangerous, and so the legislature decreed that ‘every court of record shall have power to punish as for a criminal contempt persons guilty of either of the following acts, and no others.’ Observe the difference in the two acts founded upon the inherent difference between the two classes. The private or civil contempt might go beyond the statutory enumeration, and draw in also what was usual or permissible at common law. But the public or criminal contempt was precisely defined and barred in by the statute enumeration. The phrase ‘and no others' implies that there were or might be other and non-enumerated offenses, answering the description or characteristics of public contempts, which, but for the statute, might be so deemed and punished; and all these it was affirmatively intended to shut...

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