Young v. Knight

Decision Date25 September 1959
Citation77 A.L.R.2d 994,329 S.W.2d 195
PartiesAlma YOUNG, an Infant 17 Years of Age, etc., Appellant, v. Honorable Thomas J. KNIGHT, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Kentucky

Henry A. Triplett, Louisville, for appellant.

Carl C. Ousley, Jr., Asst. Commonwealth's Atty., Louisville, for appellee.

STANLEY, Commissioner.

This is an action seeking an order prohibiting Honorable Thomas J. Knight, a Judge of the Criminal Branch of the Jefferson Circuit Court, from enforcing a rule of contempt against the petitioner, Alma Young, for refusing to answer questions asked her in a grand jury investigation. Judge Knight has suspended his order adjudging the petitioner in contempt and ordering her committed to jail (KRS 421.140, 432.230) until the present action is decided.

The power of this court is invoked under § 110 of the Constitution on the two causes for which we have ruled the power will be exercised, viz., the trial court is proceeding (1) without jurisdiction, and (2) erroneously within its jurisdiction but with resulting great injustice or irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy by appeal.

The sequence which led to the proceeding is that the petitioner's father, Seavy Young, stands charged with the murder of John Charles Kirchner. Young had waived examining trial. The grand jury was in course of determining whether an indictment against him or anyone else should be returned. The petitioner is seventeen years old.

A transcript of evidence heard by the grand jury was filed with the circuit judge. A detective had testified at length as to his detections and as to particular circumstances of the homicide. In brief, his testimony was that the deceased, nineteen years old, had been the escort of Alma Young on the evening of May 17, 1959, and they had come home about half past one o'clock in the morning. Her father was waiting for them and after upbraiding the young couple, got in the rear seat of the boy's automobile and shot him while he and his daughter were on the front seat. The detective learned this and other circumstances from the daughter's statements to officers and newspaper reporters.

The petitioner went before the grand jury in obedience to a subpoena. She testified to some particulars which the detective had described. But she declined, upon advice of counsel, to answer several questions on the ground that her answers 'may tend to incriminate me.' The witness was taken before Judge Knight, and a hearing was had on the witness' refusal to answer these two question: (1) 'Were you in the car that night with your father and this young man who was killed at the time he was killed?' (2) 'If your answer to the question now before the Court is in the affirmative, state to the grand jury who it was that shot John Kirchner.'

Judge Knight ruled that the witness was not privileged from answering the questions as he did not believe the answers would incriminate her. The court directed the witness be returned to the grand jury room and advised her that she should answer the questions, warning her that if she still refused, he would hold her to be in contempt of court. Thereupon, it was stipulated by the attorneys representing the witness and her father that she would persist in her refusal. The court then adjudged the witness to be in contempt.


The petitioner's claim that the circuit court has no jurisdiction to punish her for contempt rests upon the statutes governing county courts sitting in juvenile session and the commitment and care of children under eighteen years of age. Ch. 208, Ky.Rev. Stats. The statutes provide that such juvenile courts (as commonly called) shall have exclusive jurisdiction where such a child 'has committed a public offense.' KRS 208.020(1). Subsection (2) is exclusionary.

It expressly provides that nothing in the chapter shall deprive other courts of jurisdiction in certain enumerated proceedings, such as guardianship, custody, parental rights and adoption. The petitioner argues that since a proceeding for contempt is for a 'public offense' and is not within the exclusions, it follows that the circuit court does not have authority to punish a seventeen-year-old child for contempt.

This seems to be a case of first impression on the point.

Our Criminal Code of Practice, § 4, defines a 'public offense' as 'any act or omission for which the law has prescribed a punishment.' KRS 431.060 specifically defines all offenses other than felonies 'whether at common law or made so by statute' as misdemeanors. See Stratton v. Commonwealth, Ky., 263 S.W.2d 99. Refusal of a witness to answer may be punished as a contempt of court, with prescribed penalties. KRS 421.110, 421.140, 432.230, 432.260.

This court has expressly held in two cases that contempts of court are misdemeanors. Gordon v. Commonwealth, 141 Ky. 461, 133 S.W. 206, and Melton v. Commonwealth, 160 Ky. 642, 170 S.W. 37, L.R.A.1915B, 689. In the one, Gordon was ruled for giving false testimony. The rule was issued more than one year after the alleged contempt. The proceeding was held to have been barred by limitations applicable to misdemeanors. In the other, Melton, a doctor, was ruled to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for having connived with lawyers to fake a claim and a case for personal injury damages. The accused was found guilty by a jury and his punishment fixed at a $500 fine. We recognized that the act of the accused was a contempt. However, the court regarded the act as being in reality the misdemeanor of obstructing justice.

We have many times held that a circuit court does not have original or initial jurisdiction to try a juvenile offender. Jurisdiction is acquired only when it has been relinquished and transferred by the juvenile court. Robinson v. Kieren, 309 Ky. 171, 216 S.W.2d 925.

Thus, on its face, the proposition that a juvenile guilty of contempt of court has 'committed a public offense' is not lacking of plausibility. But the argument misses the crucial significance of the kind of contempt here involved and of the aim and purpose of juvenile court statutes.

We think there are two grounds for holding this case to be within the circuit court's jurisdiction. One is the nature of the proceeding and the other is the intent and purpose of the statutes dealing with juvenile delinquents and offenders.

(1) The term 'public offense' (used in the juvenile court statutes) is ordinarily regarded as synonymous with 'criminal offense.' In Roberts v. Hackney, 109 Ky. 265, 58 S.W. 810, 811, we stated that contempt by a witness in refusing to answer a proper question 'is in the nature of a criminal offiense, and is so punished under our statutes, being placed in the chapter regulating crimes and punishments.' While contempt partakes of the nature of a crime, it is only quasi criminal. It has been said that contempt is sui generis as being an offense against public justice. 17 C.J.S. Contempt § 7. A distinction may be drawn. Some misconduct may be contempt for which the contemnor may be subject to indictment, e. g., obstructing justice, as in the Gordon and Melton cases, supra. Contemptuous misconduct of a different character may not be so treated. Of such is an act which disregards or interfers with a judicial proceeding, as by disobeying the court's order, or conduct which scorns and defies the authority and dignity of a court or which tends to bring the administration of the law into disrespect. Whitman v. Kentucky Central Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 232 Ky. 173, 22 S.W.2d 593.

It is not possible for any judicial tribunal to fulfill its functions without power to preserve decorum and to enforce its orders. Hence, it has been recognized from ancient days that the process of contempt is an essential and inherent attribute of the jurisdiction of every court of record, and this judicial power may not be confined by limitations of a statute, except in respect of punishment. Crook v. Schumann, 292 Ky. 750, 167 S.W.2d 836; Armstrong v. Bryan, Ky., 273 S.W.2d 835; Rapalje on Contempts, § 1, 11. The power of a court to punish for contempt extends to all persons who interfere with the proper exercise of its judicial functions. Burtch v. Zeuch, 200 Iowa 49, 202 N.W. 542, 39 A.L.R. 1349. This is particularly so where the contumacious conduct is of the class for which a penalty may be summarily imposed. Such direct contempt embraces an unjustifiable refusal of a witness to answer a question before a grand jury, which is part of the court. In such a case the primary purpose is not to punish for an offense but to compel obedience to and respect for an order of court. Rapalje, §§ 22, 67. State v. Baker, 222 Iowa 903, 270 N.W. 359; People ex rel. Rusch v. Kotwas, 363 Ill. 336, 2 N.E.2d 314.

In Melton v. Commonwealth, supra, where the subject of contempt is dealt with extensively, the court pointed out that in the history of the law there had been a special practice for prosecution and punishment of persons guilty of the misdemeanor known as criminal contempt, so that a court of justice might in a summary and expeditious way punish those who offend its authority. But it is said that in extreme cases of obstructing justice, the procedure should be by criminal law process of warrant or indictment. See also Riley v. Wallace, 188 Ky. 471, 222 S.W. 1085, 11 A.L.R. 337, and Wilder v. Sampson, 279 Ky. 103, 129 S.W.2d 1022. The present case is clearly within the former class of a sui generis public offense.

(2) Juvenile courts are established as special tribunals with particular and limited jurisdiction. Their function in its application to public offenses is to administer justice in accordance with the progressive and humanitarian treatment of delinquent children charged with violating the criminal law. Robinson v. Kieren, 309 Ky. 171, 216 S.W.2d 925. The proceedings are corrective and preventive--to prevent delinquency, to discipline and to check a criminal...

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