Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Criminal Procedure-Pounders V. Watson: Summary Contempt-Zealous Advocates Beware!

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Criminal Procedure-Pounders V. Watson: Summary Contempt-Zealous Advocates Beware!

Article excerpt

Respondent Penelope Watson, along with co-counsel Joseph Gutierrez, represented William Mora in a multi-defendant murder trial before petitioner, the Honorable William Pounders.1 On April 7, 1994, one of the co-defendants' counsel in the murder trial repeatedly attempted to discuss the potential sentences the defendants faced if convicted.2 Judge Pounders stated that punishment was "`not a subject that's open to discussion [and] should not be explored."'3 On April 20, 1997, counsel for another co-defendant also raised the punishment issue.4 An immediate side-bar conference ensued, during which Judge Pounders repeated his warning, this time in open court, that sentencing was an inappropriate topic for jury discussion and would be prejudicial.5 The following day Gutierrez stated, while questioning a witness, that defendants were facing possible life sentences.6 Judge Pounders told Gutierrez that he believed there was an ulterior motive for Gutierrez's line of questioning and that the issue of sentencing was not to be covered again.7 Gutierrez then apologized in open court for mistakenly defying the earlier court order.8 Judge Pounders accepted the apology and further commented: "'[T]he more that counsel want to harp on this issue of punishment, the more inappropriate it becomes."'9

Approximately two months later, Watson made her own foray into the subject of punishment during trial.10 Sustaining an objection to Watson's line of questioning, Judge Pounders stated, "`We've already talked about this at side bar. Follow the Court's admonitions.'"11 Watson's next question to Mora was: "`You're facing life without the possibility of parole?"12 A side-bar conference immediately followed, during which Judge Pounders inquired why he should not hold Watson in contempt for twice disobeying the court's admonitions.13 She declared that her line of questioning sought to explore the witness's state of mind and was not intended to prejudice the jury.14 The court disagreed, held Watson in summary contempt, and imposed a two-day jail sentence to be served at the end of the trial.15

After being denied relief in the state courts, Watson filed a habeas petition in a federal district court.16 The district court denied her relief, and Watson appealed the denial of her federal habeas petition to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming the finding of contempt violated due process because: (1) she did not have notice; and (2) the court could not have known whether her conduct was willful without a trial.17 The appellate court reversed on other grounds, holding "that her conduct was not so disruptive as to justify the use of the summary contempt procedure."18 The United States Supreme Court held, reversed. A summary finding of criminal contempt, for the purpose of maintaining the court's authority, is not violative of due process when a court order is defied in the presence of the presiding judge. Pounders v. Watson, 521 U.S. 982 (1997).

All courts "are universally acknowledged to be vested, by their very creation, with power to impose silence, respect, and decorum, in their presence, and submission to their lawful mandates...."19 In Anderson v. Dunn,20 the United States Supreme Court, through dictum, announced its own inherent powers for punishing contemptuous conduct, while recognizing the self-protective power of the House of Representatives.21 In Anderson, the Court addressed whether the House of Representatives could punish a person who disrupted its proceedings.22 Although the Constitution did not explicitly authorize Congress to punish any person for disrupting its proceedings, except when the disruption was caused by its own members, the Court validated the House's action.23 The Court stated the alternative to allowing this power would lead to "the total annihilation of the power of the House of Representatives to guard itself from contempts, and leaves it exposed to every indignity and interruption that rudeness, caprice, or even conspiracy, may meditate against it. …

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