First, what does it mean when a Judge says "Counselor, You're in CONTEMPT of Court!"
It means the attorney has pushed the Judge's buttons.
It means he's crossed the line.
It means he continued to do something he was told not to do.
It means he might have violated an ethical rule.
Maybe he violated a legal rule.
Maybe he just pissed off the Judge.
There could be lots of reasons why an attorney would be held in contempt of court.
But what exactly does that really mean?
Let me break it down for you...
When you walk into a courtroom, there's a level of decorum that's expected.
If an attorney were to walk into court in a t-shirt and shorts, he'd be disrespecting the court.
He'd be disrespecting our system of justice.
He'd be disrespecting the Judge.
The Judge would throw him out and demand he dress appropriately in a suit and tie.
The Judge is the authority in the courtroom.
That authority is backed up with a show of force; an armed court officer.
Maybe the attorney disagrees with one of the Judge's ruling during trial.
Maybe the attorney talked back to the Judge.
Maybe the attorney is disrespectful to the Judge in front of the jury.
The Judge might tell the attorney to stop referring to a document that cannot be discussed.
If he continues to talk about it, he'll be admonished by the judge.
If he does it again, the Judge will yell at him.
If he does it again, he might push the Judge to scold him and reprimand him in front of the jury.
"Another outburst from you and you'll be in contempt!" the Judge shouts.
The attorney feels he has to protect his clients' rights and does it again.
This time, the Judge yells "YOU'RE IN CONTEMPT OF COURT!"
What happens then?
The reality is that the Judge has MANY options available to him.
In all likelihood, he's going to address this after the jury has left the courtroom.
In all likelihood, he's going to finish up with whatever witness is testifying and then deal with this afterward.
It will not be pleasant.
When a Judge holds an attorney in contempt, the goal is to punish the attorney for his conduct or his behavior.
Punishment is the key.
The trial Judge can punish an attorney in many ways.
One way is personally to fine him.
Require him to pay a monetary penalty.
Thousands of dollars.
Another would be to sanction him that also causes him to pay the court money.
Another way of punishing him is to throw his client's case out.
That means he'd likely open up the likelihood of being sued for legal malpractice by his client.
That would most certainly result in added expenses, hiring a legal malpractice attorney and dealing with appeals.
Another way to punish the attorney is to have the court officer put him in jail.
That's extreme and does not often happen in a civil trial.
Even where the attorney's conduct is outrageous, you rarely, if ever, see that happen.
You certainly see it on TV.
You see it in the movies.
But those are dramas and punishing an attorney by throwing him in jail certainly makes for good drama.
The trial judge could refer the lawyer to the grievance committee for something he did unethically during trial.
The judge might also refer the lawyer to the district attorney's office if he feels the atttorney's conduct was criminal.
But here's a more important point...
When a Judge finds an attorney in contempt of court, it usually happens during a trial.
Usually a jury trial.
If an attorney is so outrageous and so unreasonable that he ticks of the Judge repeatedly, what kind of effect do you think that will have on the jury?
Remember, the jury is trying to decide whether the injured victim is more likely right than wrong.
An attorney needs to generate good will and trust with the jury.
If a lawyer is obnoxious and antagonizes the judge, do you think the jury will believe the attorney?
Do you think the jury will continue to trust the attorney and his client?
Most likely, no.
Maybe the attorney realizes his case is going downhill and now he thinks that by doing some outrageous things, he'd be preserving his clients' right to appeal a losing verdict.
When a Judge tells you that you must now pay $10,000 to the court because of your obnoxious behavior, there is the possibility that will stick and you'll have to pay.
But to get to that point there would need to be a hearing.
A hearing with the attorney to determine the punishment.
To determine the amount of money he will have to pay.
Then, the attorney will have to deal with an appeal.
That could take months, if not years to resolve.
To answer the question I raised in the headline...
There is no definable number of times an attorney needs to tick off a judge before he's held in contempt of court.
It could be one instance.
It could be a pattern of instances during trial.
Maybe the judge said that he cannot refer to a photograph since it's not admissible as evidence.
What if the attorney kept waiving that photo around and kept refering to it?
Not once. Not twice. Five, six, seven times.
Which one of those times will break the camel's back and prompt the judge to yell "Counselor, YOU'RE IN CONTEMPT OF COURT! In my chambers NOW!"
To learn how an attorney introduces evidence at trial, I invite you to watch the quick video below...