Search This Blog

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fourth Circuit rejects South Carolina's definition of "direct contempt"

By Kirsten E. Small

Last Friday, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a grant of habeas relief in favor of Donald Brandt. A South Carolina court summarily convicted Brandt of "direct" criminal contempt and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment, based on Brandt's use of a forged letter in a deposition. Brandt appealed his conviction, arguing that "direct" contempt applies only to conduct occurring in the presence of a judge. The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with this proposition but held that the "presence" of the judge encompasses "all elements of the judicial system," including a deposition.

Not so much, says the Fourth Circuit. Y'all can do what you want as a matter of due process under the state Constitution, but the federal Constitution* allows a conviction for direct criminal contempt only when the judge actually sees the contemptuous conduct. Because that was not the case with Brandt (the contempt was proved to the court, in part, with expert testimony that the document was forged), direct criminal contempt was improper.

You might wonder if this decision is a hallmark of a more "liberal" Fourth Circuit, which one lawyer once referred to as a "black hole" of habeas jurisprudence. I don't think so. For one thing, the authoring judge (Agee) is a Bush appointee. For another, the decision was really a no-brainer. The law on what constitutes direct contempt is abundantly clear, and the South Carolina Supreme Court clearly applied the wrong definition.

*Any grammar gurus out there: what's the capitalization rule for the word "constitution" when combined with the modifiers "state" or "federal?" I know that constitution should be capitalized when referring to "the Constitution" (as in, the federal one), but beyond that, I'm lost. (Incidentally, Blogger's spell check seems to think that "constitution" should always be capitalized. Hmm.)

No comments:

Post a Comment