A contempt proceeding is sui generis,
in its nature
criminal, yet may be resorted to in civil as well as criminal
actions and also independently of any action. The purpose of
contempt proceedings is to uphold the power of the court, and also
to secure suitors therein the rights by it awarded. The power to
punish for contempt is inherent in all courts.
Under § 6 of the Court of Appeals Act of 1891, a circuit court
of appeals has jurisdiction to review a judgment of the district or
circuit court finding a person guilty of contempt for violation of
its order and imposing a fine for the contempt.
If the person adjudged in contempt and fined therefor is not a
party to the suit in which the order is made, he can bring the
matter to the circuit court of appeals by writ of error, but not by
This case is before us on questions certified by the Circuit
Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The facts as stated are
that, on August 24, 1901, the W. B. Conkey Company filed
Page 194 U. S. 325
its bill of complaint in the Circuit Court of the United States
for the District of Indiana against several parties, praying an
injunction, provisional and perpetual, restraining the defendants,
their confederates, agents, and servants, from interfering with the
operation of its printing and publishing house. A temporary
restraining order was issued, and on December 3, 1901, a perpetual
injunction was ordered against all the defendants appearing or
served with process. On September 13, 1901, the complainant filed
its verified petition informing the court that various persons,
among them Edward E. Bessette (who was not named as a party
defendant in the bill), with knowledge of the restraining order,
had violated it, describing fully the manner of the violation. Upon
the filing of that petition, Bessette was ordered to appear before
the court and show cause why he should not be punished for contempt
in violating the restraining order. He appeared and filed his
answer to the charges, and upon a hearing, the court found him
guilty of contempt and imposed a fine of $250. From this order or
judgment, Bessette prayed an appeal to the circuit court of
appeals, which was allowed, and the record filed in that court.
Upon these facts, the circuit court of appeals certified the
"First. Whether the circuit court of appeals has jurisdiction to
review an order or judgment of the circuit court of the United
States, finding a person guilty of contempt for violation of an
order of that court, and imposing a fine for the contempt."
"Second. Whether the 'Act to Establish circuit courts of
appeals, and to Define and Regulate in Certain cases Jurisdiction
of the Courts of the United States, and for Other Purposes,'
approved March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 826, c. 517), authorizes a review
by a circuit court of appeals of a judgment or order of a circuit
court of the United States finding a person not a party to the suit
guilty of contempt for violation of an order of that court, made in
such suit, and imposing a fine for such contempt. "
Page 194 U. S. 326
"Third. Whether, if such review be sanctioned by law, a person
so adjudged in contempt, and fined therefor, who is not a party to
the suit, can bring the matter to the circuit court of appeals by
"Fourth. Whether, if such review be sanctioned by law, a person
so adjudged in contempt and fined therefor, who is not a party to
the suit, can bring the matter to the circuit court of appeals by
writ of error."
MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The primary question is whether the circuit court of appeals can
review an order of a district or circuit court in contempt
proceedings. A secondary question is how, if there be a right of
review, can it be exercised?
A contempt proceeding is sui generis.
It is criminal in
its nature, in that the party is charged with doing something
forbidden, and, if found guilty, is punished. Yet it may be
resorted to in civil as well as criminal actions, and also
independently of any civil or criminal action.
The power to punish for contempt is inherent in all courts. It
is true, Congress, by statute (1 Stat. 83), declared that the
courts of the United States
"shall have power . . . to punish by fine or imprisonment, at
the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any
cause or hearing before the same."
And this general power was limited by the Act of March 2, 1831,
4 Stat. 487, Rev.Stat. § 725, the limitation being --
"That such power to punish contempts shall not be construed to
extend to any cases except the misbehavior of any person in their
presence, or so near thereto as to obstruct the
Page 194 U. S. 327
administration of justice, the misbehavior of any of the
officers of said courts in their official transactions, and the
disobedience or resistance by any such officer, or by any party,
juror, witness, or other person, to any lawful writ, process,
order, rule, decree, or command of the said courts."
But, in respect to this, it was held in Ex Parte
19 Wall. 505, 86 U. S.
"The power to punish for contempts is inherent in all courts;
its existence is essential to the preservation of order in judicial
proceedings, and to the enforcement of the judgments, orders, and
writs of the courts, and, consequently to the due administration of
justice. The moment the courts of the United States were called
into existence and invested with jurisdiction over any subject,
they became possessed of this power. But the power has been limited
and defined by the Act of Congress of March 2, 1831. The act, in
terms, applies to all courts; whether it can be held to limit the
authority of the Supreme Court, which derives its existence and
powers from the Constitution, may perhaps be a matter of doubt. But
that it applies to the circuit and district courts there can be no
question. These courts were created by acts of Congress. Their
powers and duties depend upon the act calling them into existence,
or subsequent acts extending or limiting their jurisdiction. The
act of 1831 is therefore to them the law specifying the cases in
which summary punishment for contempts may be inflicted."
The purpose of contempt proceedings is to uphold the power of
the court, and also to secure to suitors therein the rights by it
awarded. As said in In re Chiles,
22 Wall. 157, 89 U. S.
"The exercise of this power has a two-fold aspect, namely,
first, the proper punishment of the guilty party for his disrespect
to the court or its order, and second to compel his performance of
some act or duty required of him by the court which he refuses to
In In re Nevitt,
117 F. 448, 458, Judge Sanborn, of the
Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit,
Page 194 U. S. 328
considered the nature of contempt proceedings at some length. We
quote the following from his opinion:
"Proceedings for contempts are of two classes -- those
prosecuted to preserve the power and vindicate the dignity, of the
courts, and to punish for disobedience of their orders, and those
instituted to preserve and enforce the rights of private parties to
suits, and to compel obedience to orders and decrees made to
enforce the rights and administer the remedies to which the court
has found them to be entitled. The former are criminal and punitive
in their nature, and the government, the courts, and the people are
interested in their prosecution. The latter are civil, remedial,
and coercive in their nature, and the parties chiefly in interest
in their conduct and prosecution are the individuals whose private
rights and remedies they were instituted to protect or enforce.
Thompson v. Railroad Co.,
48 N.J.Eq. 105, 108; Hendryx
19 F. 810; Ex Parte Culliford,
Barn. & C. 220; Rex v. Edwards,
9 Barn. & C. 652;
People v. Court of Oyer and Terminer,
101 N.Y. 245, 247;
Phillips v. Welch,
11 Nev. 187, 190; State v.
3 S.D. 509, 513; People v. McKane,
154, 160; 4 Bl.Comm. 285, 7 Am. & Eng. Enc.Law 68. A criminal
contempt involves no element of personal injury. It is directed
against the power and dignity of the court, and private parties
have little, if any, interest in the proceedings for its
punishment. But if the contempt consists in the refusal of a party
or a person to do an act which the court has ordered him to do for
the benefit or the advantage of a party to a suit or action pending
before it, and he is committed until he complies with the order,
the commitment is in the nature of an execution to enforce the
judgment of the court, and the party in whose favor that judgment
was rendered is the real party in interest in the proceedings."
Rapalje on Contempts § 21.
Doubtless the distinction referred to in this quotation is
Page 194 U. S. 329
cause of the difference in the rulings of various state courts
as to the right of review. Manifestly, if one inside of a courtroom
disturbs the order of proceedings or is guilty of personal
misconduct in the presence of the court, such action may properly
be regarded as a contempt of court; yet it is not misconduct in
which any individual suitor is specially interested. It is more
like an ordinary crime which affects the public at large, and the
criminal nature of the act is the dominant feature. On the other
hand, if, in the progress of a suit, a party is ordered by the
court to abstain from some action which is injurious to the rights
of the adverse party and he disobeys that order, he may also be
guilty of contempt, but the personal injury to the party in whose
favor the court has made the order gives a remedial character to
the contempt proceeding. The punishment is to secure to the adverse
party the right which the court has awarded to him. He is the one
primarily interested, and if it should turn out, on appeal from the
final decree in the case, that the original order was erroneous,
there would, in most cases, be great propriety in setting aside the
punishment which was imposed for disobeying an order to which the
adverse party was not entitled.
It may not be always easy to classify a particular act as
belonging to either one of these two classes. It may partake of the
characteristics of both. A significant and generally determinative
feature is that the act is by one party to a suit in disobedience
of a special order made in behalf of the other. Yet sometimes the
disobedience may be of such a character and in such a manner as to
indicate a contempt of the court, rather than a disregard of the
rights of the adverse party.
In the case at bar, the controversy between the parties to the
suit was settled by final decree, and from that decree, so far as
appears, no appeal was taken. An appeal from it would not have
brought up the proceeding against the petitioner, for he was not a
party to the suit. Yet, being no party to the suit, he was found
guilty of an act in resistance of the order
Page 194 U. S. 330
of the court. His case therefore comes more fully within the
punitive than the remedial class. It should be regarded like
misconduct in a courtroom or disobedience of a subpoena, as among
those acts primarily directed against the power of the court, and,
in that view of the case, we pass to a consideration of the
In In re Debs, 158 U. S. 564
case of habeas corpus brought to review an order of the circuit
court imprisoning for contempt, we said (p. 158 U. S.
"In brief, a court enforcing obedience to its orders by
proceedings for contempt is not executing the criminal laws of the
land, but only securing to suitors the rights which it has adjudged
them entitled to."
And again, in summing up our conclusions (p. 158 U. S.
"That the proceeding by injunction is of a civil character, and
may be enforced by proceedings in contempt; that such proceedings
are not in execution of the criminal laws of the land; that the
penalty for a violation of injunction is no substitute for, and no
defense to, a prosecution for any criminal offenses committed in
the course of such violation."
At common law, it was undoubted that no court reviewed the
proceedings of another court in contempt matters. In Crosby's
3 Wils. 188, Mr. Justice Blackstone said:
"The sole adjudication of contempts, and the punishment thereof,
in any manner, belongs exclusively, and without interfering, to
each respective court."
In the case of Ex Parte Yates,
4 Johns. 318, 369, Chief
Justice Kent, after reviewing the English cases, and referring to
the case of The Earl of Shaftsbury,
1 Mod. 144, concluded
"The court in that case seem to have laid down a principle from
which they never have departed, and which is essential to the due
administration of justice. This principle, that every court, at
least of the superior kind, in which great confidence is placed,
must be the sole judge, in the last resort, of contempts arising
therein, is more explicitly defined and more
Page 194 U. S. 331
emphatically enforced in the two subsequent cases of Queen
and of King v. Crosby.
Without stopping to notice the decisions of the courts of the
several states, whose decisions are more or less influenced by the
statutes of those states, we turn to an examination of the rulings
of this Court in respect to the finality of contempt
In Ex Parte
7 Wheat. 38, a writ of habeas corpus was
issued by this Court in behalf of a party committed to jail by the
Circuit Court of the District of Columbia for contempt in refusing
to answer a question put to him on a trial. The application for a
discharge was refused. The reasons therefor are disclosed by the
following quotations from the opinion delivered by Mr. Justice
Story (p. 20 U. S. 42
"It is to be considered that this Court has no appellate
jurisdiction confided to it in criminal cases by the laws of the
United States. It cannot entertain a writ of error to revise the
judgment of the circuit court in any case where a party has been
convicted of a public offence. . . . If, then, this Court cannot
directly revise a judgment of the circuit court in a criminal case,
what reason is there to suppose that it was intended to vest it
with the authority to do it indirectly? . . . If this were an
application for a habeas corpus after judgment on an indictment for
an offense within the jurisdiction of the circuit court, it could
hardly be maintained that this Court could revise such a judgment,
or the proceedings which led to it, or set it aside and discharge
the prisoner. There is in principle no distinction between that
case and the present, for when a court commits a party for a
contempt, their adjudication is a conviction, and their commitment,
in consequence, is execution, and so the law was settled, upon full
deliberation, in the case of Brass Crosby, Lord Mayor of
3 Wilson 188."
20 Wall. 387, was a suit by the company in
the circuit court of the United States for an injunction
restraining the city from interfering with its
Page 194 U. S. 332
possession of certain premises. Pending this suit, the mayor of
the city applied to a state court for an injunction restraining the
company from rebuilding an enclosure of the premises which the city
had destroyed, and the injunction was granted. At this time, the
city was the only party defendant in the circuit court, although
service upon it had been made by delivering process to the mayor.
Subsequently, the mayor was made a party defendant by a
supplemental bill. A final decree was entered against the
defendants, and as a part thereof was an order adjudging the mayor
guilty of contempt in suing out the injunction in the state court
and imposing a fine therefor. Thereupon, the case was brought to
this Court, and, among other things, the validity of the punishment
for contempt was challenged, in respect to which we said (p.
87 U. S.
"The fine of three hundred dollars imposed upon the mayor is
beyond our jurisdiction. Contempt of court is a specific criminal
offense. The imposition of the fine was a judgment in a criminal
case. That part of the decree is as distinct from the residue as if
it were a judgment upon an indictment for perjury committed in a
deposition read at the hearing. This Court can take cognizance of a
criminal case only upon a certificate of division in opinion."
Hayes v. Fischer, 102 U. S. 121
a suit in equity to restrain the use of a patented device. An
interlocutory injunction was granted. The defendant was fined for
contempt in violating this injunction, and the entire amount of the
fine ordered to be paid over to the plaintiff in reimbursement. To
reverse this order, defendant sued out a writ of error. A motion to
dismiss was sustained, Mr. Chief Justice Waite saying for the Court
(p. 102 U. S.
"If the order complained of is to be treated as part of what was
done in the original suit, it cannot be brought here for review by
writ of error. Errors in equity suits can only be corrected in this
Court on appeal, and that after a final decree. This order, if part
of the proceedings in the suit, was interlocutory only. "
Page 194 U. S. 333
"If the proceeding below being for contempt was independent of
and separate from the original suit, it cannot be reexamined here
either by writ of error or appeal. This was decided more than fifty
years ago in Ex Parte Kearney,
38, and the rule then established was followed as late as
Orleans v. Steamship Company,
20 Wall. 387. It
follows that we have no jurisdiction."
In Ex Parte Fisk,
a case of habeas corpus, 113 U. S. 113
713, 113 U. S. 718
Mr. Justice Miller, speaking for the Court, declared:
"There can be no doubt of the proposition that the exercise of
the power of punishment for contempt of their orders by courts of
general jurisdiction is not subject to review by writ of error or
appeal to this Court. Nor is there in the system of federal
jurisprudence any relief against such orders, when the court has
authority to make them, except through the court making the order,
or, possibly, by the exercise of the pardoning power."
"This principle has been uniformly held to be necessary to the
protection of the court from insults and oppressions while in the
ordinary exercise of its duties, and to enable it to enforce its
judgments and orders necessary to the due administration of law and
the protection of the rights of suitors."
In Worden v. Searls, 121 U. S. 14
final decree was entered in a suit for infringement of a patent in
favor of the plaintiff, and from that decree the defendants
appealed. A preliminary injunction had been granted, and, prior to
the final decree, the defendants were adjudged guilty of a contempt
in violating it, and ordered to pay to the complainant the sum of
$250 as a fine therefor, together with the costs of the contempt
proceedings. This Court was of opinion that the decree in favor of
the plaintiff was erroneous, and reversed it, and, in addition to
directing a dismissal of the bill, set aside the order imposing the
fines in the contempt proceedings, saying in respect thereto (p.
121 U. S.
"We have jurisdiction to review the final decree in the suit and
all interlocutory decrees and orders. These fines were
Page 194 U. S. 334
directed to be paid to the plaintiff. We say nothing as to the
lawfulness or propriety of this direction. But the fines were in
fact measured by the damages the plaintiff had sustained and the
expenses he had incurred. They were incidents of his claims in the
suit. His right to them was, if it existed at all, founded on his
right to the injunction, and that was founded on the validity of
But, while setting aside the orders imposing the fines, it was
"without prejudice to the power and right of the circuit court to
punish the contempt referred to in those orders by a proper
Again, in In re Chetwood,
an application for
prohibition, 165 U. S. 165
443, 165 U. S. 462
is this ruling:
"Judgments in proceedings in contempt are not reviewable here on
appeal or error. Hayes v. Fischer, 102 U. S.
; In re Debs, 158 U. S.
, 158 U. S. 573
. But they may
be reached by certiorari, in the absence of any other adequate
remedy. The writ of certiorari will be allowed to bring up the
record, so that the order adjudging Chetwood and his counsel in
contempt for being concerned in suing out the writs of error, and
directing them, or either of them, to refrain from prosecuting the
one writ in the name of the bank, and to dismiss the other, may be
revised and annulled."
In O'Neal v. United States, 190 U. S.
, in which an order of the district court punishing
for contempt was brought here on writ of error, we said (p.
190 U. S. 38
"While proceedings in contempt may be said to be sui
the present judgment is, in effect, a judgment in a
criminal case, over which this Court has no jurisdiction on error.
Sec. 5, Act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826, c. 517, as amended by
the Act of Jan. 20, 1897, 29 Stat. 492, c. 68; Chetwood's
Case, 165 U. S. 443
, 165 U. S.
; Tinsley v. Anderson, 171 U. S.
, 171 U. S. 105
Manufacturing Company v. Acme Flexible Clasp Co., 187 U. S.
, 187 U. S. 428
In In re Watts, 190 U. S. 1
petitioners, having been found guilty of a contempt of court by the
Page 194 U. S. 335
of Indiana, applied for a writ of habeas corpus. We issued with
that writ a certiorari and brought the entire record to this Court,
and, upon the evidence, discharged the petitioners.
From these decisions it is apparent that the uniform ruling of
this Court has been against the right to review the decisions of
the lower court in contempt proceedings by writ of error or by
appeal, except in cases of purely remedial and interlocutory
orders. Yet we have issued certioraries in aid of habeas corpus
proceedings and applications for prohibition by which the facts in
the contempt case have been brought before us, and then we have
passed upon the merits of the decision in the lower court.
The thought underlying the denial by this Court of the right of
review by writ of error or appeal has not been that there was
something in contempt proceedings which rendered them not properly
open to review, but that they were of a criminal nature, and no
provision had been made for a review of criminal cases. This was
true in England, as here. In that country, as is well known, there
was no review of criminal cases by appeal or writ of error. Neither
was there in our federal system prior to the act of February 6,
1889, 25 Stat. 656, c. 113, which provided for a writ of error from
this Court in capital cases. While the act creating the court of
appeals, March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826, authorized a review of
criminal cases, yet it limited the jurisdiction of this Court to
cases of a conviction for a capital or otherwise infamous crime --
since limited to capital cases (29 Stat. 492), and gave the right
of review of all other criminal cases to the circuit courts of
appeal, and, of course, a proceeding in contempt cannot be
considered as an infamous crime. Habeas corpus is not treated as a
writ of error, and while it may be issued by one court to inquire
into the action of a court of coordinate jurisdiction, yet the
inquiry is only whether the action of the court in imposing
punishment was within its jurisdiction. Even in an appellate court,
the writ of habeas corpus is not of itself the equivalent of a writ
of error, although, when supplemented by certiorari, as
Page 194 U. S. 336
shown in the case of In re Watts and Sachs, supra.
may bring the whole case before the appellate court for review.
The Act of March 3, 1891, establishing circuit courts of appeals
must now be more fully considered. While its primary purpose was
the relief of this Court by the creation of new appellate courts,
and the distribution between those courts and this of the entire
appellate jurisdiction of the United States, The Paquete
Habana, 175 U. S. 677
175 U. S. 681
and cases cited, yet it also enlarged the area of appellate
jurisdiction. As originally passed, it gave to this Court
jurisdiction over cases of infamous crimes in addition to that
which it theretofore had in capital cases. By section 6, it gave to
the circuit courts of appeals appellate jurisdiction to review by
appeal or writ of error final decisions in the district court and
the existing circuit courts in all cases other than those provided
for in the preceding section. That this was intended to include
criminal cases is evident from a subsequent clause, which makes the
decision of the courts of appeals final "in all cases arising . . .
under the criminal laws." See United States v. Rider,
163 U. S. 132
163 U. S. 138
in which, referring to sections 5 and 6, we said:
"Thus, appellate jurisdiction was given in all criminal cases by
writ of error, either from this Court or from the circuit courts of
As, therefore, the ground upon which a review by this Court of a
final decision in contempt cases was denied no longer exists, the
decisions themselves cease to have controlling authority, and
whether the circuit courts of appeals have authority to review
proceedings in contempt in the district and circuit courts depends
upon the question whether such proceedings are criminal cases. That
they are criminal in their nature has been constantly affirmed.
The orders imposing punishment are final. Why, then, should they
not be reviewed as final decisions in other criminal cases? It is
true they are peculiar in some respects, rightfully styled sui
They are triable only by the court against
Page 194 U. S. 337
whose authority the contempts are charged. No jury passes upon
the facts; no other court inquires into the charge.
4 Pet. 108. As said by Mr. Justice
Miller, speaking for the Court in Eilenbecker v. Plymouth
County, 134 U. S. 31
134 U. S.
"If it has ever been understood that proceedings according to
the common law for contempt of court have been subject to the right
of trial by jury, we have been unable to find any instance of it.
It has always been one of the attributes -- one of the powers
necessarily incident to a court of justice -- that it should have
this power of vindicating its dignity, of enforcing its orders, of
protecting itself from insult, without the necessity of calling
upon a jury to assist it in the exercise of this power."
See also In re Debs, supra,
in which we said (p.
158 U. S.
"But the power of a court to make an order carries with it the
equal power to punish for disobedience of that order, and the
inquiry as to the question of disobedience has been, from time
immemorial, the special function of the court. And this is no
technical rule. In order that a court may compel obedience to its
orders, it must have the right to inquire whether there has been
any disobedience thereof. To submit the question of disobedience to
another tribunal, be it a jury or another court, would operate to
deprive the proceeding of half its efficiency."
But the mode of trial does not change the nature of the
proceeding, or take away the finality of the decision. So when, by
section 6 of the Courts of Appeals Act, the circuit courts of
appeals are given jurisdiction to review the
"final decision in the district court and the existing circuit
courts in all cases other than those provided for in the preceding
section of this act, unless otherwise provided by law,"
and the preceding section gives to this Court jurisdiction to
review convictions in only capital or otherwise infamous crimes,
and no other provision is found in the statutes for a review of the
final order in contempt cases, upon what satisfactory ground
Page 194 U. S. 338
it be held that the final decisions in contempt cases in the
circuit or district courts are not subject to review by the circuit
courts of appeals? Considering only such cases of contempt as the
present -- that is, cases in which the proceedings are against one
not a party to the suit, and cannot be regarded as interlocutory --
we are of opinion that there is a right of review in the circuit
court of appeals. Such review must, according to the settled law of
this Court, be by writ of error. Walker v.
12 Wall. 440; Deland v. Platte
County, 155 U. S. 221
Bucklin v. United States, 159 U.
. On such a writ, only matters of law are
considered. The decision of the trial tribunal, court or jury,
deciding the facts, is conclusive as to them.
We therefore answer the questions in this way: the second and
fourth in the affirmative, the third in the negative. It is
unnecessary to answer the first.