Friday, August 27, 2010

Kentucky Lawyer Faces 6-Month Contempt Sentence For Obeying The Law

Amelia Mikki Adams, a Louisville, Kentucky, lawyer, received a 6-month contempt sentence for refusing to reveal the name of her minor client to a judge. Adams represented "J.J.," a 17-year-old female, who sought judicial approval of her decision to have an abortion.

According to Supreme Court precedent, states can require minors to obtain parental consent prior to having abortions. These states, however, must provide a "judicial bypass" option for mature minors to seek an abortion without parental consent.

During the bypass hearing, J.J "testified that her parents drink to the point of intoxication every day, leaving her and a younger sister to make their own meals and take care of themselves. . . ." The judge ruled that she was mature enough to have an abortion without parental consent.

Later the judge demanded that Adams reveal J.J's name, saying that she wanted to report the parents for child neglect. Adams refused because Kentucky law allows for anonymous bypass hearings and because ethical rules for attorneys prohibit attorneys from disclosing confidential client information. Although state law requires persons to report suspected incidents of child neglect or abuse, the law contains an exception for abuse learned of through an attorney-client relationship.

After the judge continued pressing for the information, Adams told the judge that she only knew her client's first name. Adams, however, immediately withdrew this comment, stating that she misspoke. The judge, however, later sentenced Adams to 6 months of incarceration for misleading the court and for failing to reveal J.J.'s name. The contempt ruling is currently under appeal, and the judge has stayed the contempt ruling pending appeal.

My Take

While Adams was wrong if she intentionally mislead the judge, the judge's request seems to violate Kentucky's bypass statute and its attorney ethical rules (which are similar across the nation). This alone would probably provide a basis for the appeals court to reverse the contempt ruling.

Improper Procedure Finding Contempt?

There is another possible angle that the appeals court could consider, but which media accounts have ignored. There a several kinds of contempt -- coercive and compensatory civil contempt and criminal contempt. Furthermore, contempt can be direct, or in the presence of the court, or indirect, taking place outside of court.

If a court imposes imprisonment or a fine under circumstances where the individual has no way to avoid the penalty, this constitutes criminal contempt. Contrast this with the situation where the court imposes a daily fine or jail term in order to coerce compliance with its orders (coercive civil contempt).

Supreme Court precedent requires courts to extend more due process to persons charged with criminal contempt. Although Kentucky law and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permit summary proceedings for direct criminal contempt, these rules exist to prevent disruption to the legal proceeding. Although the facts of this case are unclear, it seems that the proceeding was virtually over and the court had already rendered its decision when the judge found Adams in contempt.

Under circumstances such as these, it is unclear whether a summary proceeding without notice or a hearing is permissible. As the Supreme Court held in UAW v. Bagwell, the leading case on this issue:
Summary adjudication becomes less justifiable once a court leaves the realm of immediately sanctioned, petty direct contempts. If a court delays punishing a direct contempt until the completion of trial, for example, due process requires that the contemnor's rights to notice and a hearing be respected. There "it is much more difficult to argue that action without notice or hearing of any kind is necessary to preserve order and enable [the court] to proceed with its business. . . ." Direct contempts also cannot be punished with serious criminal penalties absent the full protections of a criminal jury trial (italics added).
Because the facts surrounding the contempt ruling are not thoroughly reported in press accounts, it is unclear at this point whether the Kentucky judge complied with Supreme Court doctrine. Adams could also argue that the 6-month sentence constitutes a serious penalty under the circumstances. Regardless, Adams has a great basis for an appeal, given the weight of law that leans to her side.

UPDATE: This article was edited for clarity.


liberal dissent said...

From what I've read, contempt rulings are frequently overturned. I do think it's interesting though, but I would not be surprised had she revealed the client's name she would then be in trouble with the state bar. They do tell us in law school that sometimes you will be put in impossible situations like this, and there's not much you can do about this.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I was wondering about an ethical charge too.

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