No one wants to be held in contempt, whether it be by family, friends or acquaintances, but imagine being held in contempt by a court of law. The court’s contempt is directed at the person who wilfully violates and/or refuses to abide by a court’s judgments, decrees and orders. The power of contempt is used as a tool to ensure that court orders are enforced. Holding a person in contempt is but one of many powers the court has to enforce its orders but holding someone in contempt is one of the most powerful powers because it can result in a loss of liberty.
In Family Courts, we generally deal with civil contempt as opposed to criminal contempt. A motion for civil contempt is filed when the purpose is to assist the complainant in forcing the other party to abide by the terms of a court order. Civil contempt is remedial and coercive in nature. It is not supposed to be punishment. Punishment is directed at the person who is in criminal contempt. Indeed, the focus of criminal contempt is “to punish past disobedience of a court order, not to improve or remedy future conduct.” Douglas, Family Law, Volume 3A at §22.02. Because the purpose of a prosecution for criminal contempt is to punish – saying “sorry” at that point doesn’t really work. Saying “sorry” when there is a civil contempt proceeding is exactly what the court wants to hear.
In one of this country’s most famous contempt cases, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan was jailed in 1988 and 1989 for refusing to disclose her daughter’s whereabouts. In the late ’80s, Dr. Morgan was fighting an ugly custody battle with her former husband, Dr. Eric Foretich. The couple had a daughter named Hilary and custody of Hilary was contested. Dr. Morgan alleged that Foretich, from whom she was divorced before giving birth to Hilary, had sexually abused Hilary. Dr. Morgan spent about $1 million to prove it and to protect Hilary.
When D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. dismissed the civil case against Hilary’s father, Dr. Morgan defied his court orders giving Dr. Foretich visitation rights. Dr. Morgan then spent two years at the D.C. City Jail for illegally hiding Hilary in New Zealand. Once in New Zealand, Hilary’s name was changed to Ellen Morgan. Hilary/Ellen became undetectable.
Once in jail, Dr. Morgan refused to divulge her daughter’s whereabouts. She was finally freed in 1989 but it literally took an act of Congress to do so. In 1996, Congress passed yet another law aimed at Dr. Morgan and her daughter – the Elizabeth Morgan Act. This allowed them both to return home to Washington, D.C.
It’s safe to say that many people who refuse to abide by court orders aren’t very smart because defying court orders doesn’t always end well. In Dr. Morgan’s case, that can’t be said. Dr. Morgan is now getting or has gotten her master’s degree in public health at UCLA. This is happening after she got a biology degree from Harvard, and M.D. from Yale and a psychology degree from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She also has a Ph.D in stubbornness and feistiness.