Pounders v. Watson,
521 U.S. 982 (1997)

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No. 96-1383. Decided June 27, 1997

Respondent represented William Mora during a multidefendant murder trial in a California court. During the trial, the presiding judge, petitioner here, admonished counsel that the issue of the punishment defendants might receive if they were convicted was not open for discussion and should not be explored. When respondent brought up possible punishment while questioning Mora, the judge found her in contempt, concluding that the sole purpose of her questions was to improperly advise the jury of the potential penalty in violation of the court's order, that she was aware of the order, and that her conduct permanently prejudiced the jury. After her state habeas petitions were denied, the Federal District Court denied federal habeas relief, holding that multiple statements made in open court gave respondent adequate warning as to the prohibited conduct, thus satisfying due process notice requirements. In reversing, the Ninth Circuit did not dispute the trial court's findings, but held that respondent's conduct was not so disruptive as to justify the use of summary contempt procedures.

Held: The Ninth Circuit erred in ruling that the contempt order went beyond those necessities pertaining to the ordered administration of justice. Longstanding precedent confirms the courts' power to find summary contempt and impose punishment. See, e. g., Ex parte Terry, 128 U. S. 289. Since that power may be abused, summary contempt orders are confined to misconduct occurring in court, In re Oliver, 333 U. S. 257, 275, where the affront to the court's dignity is more widely observed, justifying summary vindication, see In re Green, 369 U. S. 689, 692. However, nothing in this Court's cases supports the Ninth Circuit's requirements that a contemnor engage in a pattern of repeated violations pervading the courtroom before she can be held in contempt and that a court determine that a contemnor would have repeated the misconduct but for summary punishment. To the contrary, this Court upheld summary contempt convictions after a single refusal to give immunized testimony, United States v. Wilson, 421 U. S. 309, 314, and found that the principle that the least possible power adequate to the end proposed should be used in contempt cases was satisfied because a court


is justified in acting swiftly to prevent a breakdown of the proceedings during an ongoing trial, id., at 319. Seriously prejudicing the jury, as the trial court found here, is comparable in terms of damage to the administration of justice to the refusals to testify in Wilson. There is no need to explore here what limitations and standards due process imposes on the authority to issue a summary contempt order, since respondent's conduct was well within the range of contumacious conduct disruptive of judicial proceedings and damaging to the trial court's authority.

Certiorari granted; 102 F.3d 433, reversed.


In this case the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted respondent's habeas corpus petition and held invalid on due process grounds her conviction for summary contempt before a state-court judge for conduct in open court. The Court of Appeals misinterpreted the constitutional requirements for imposition of a summary contempt order. We grant the petition for a writ of certiorari and reverse.

Respondent Penelope Watson is an attorney who represented William Mora in a multidefendant murder trial in the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Los Angeles. The Honorable William Pounders presided over the case, and he is the petitioner here. On April 7, 1994, counsel for one of Mora's codefendants repeatedly raised in open court the issue of the punishment defendants might receive if they were convicted. Judge Pounders stated that possible punishment" 'is not a subject that's open to discussion. It should not be explored.'" App. to Pet. for Cert. 20. Though it is not clear whether this was said at a bench conference only or reiterated in open court, it seems respondent remained at the defense table during the bench conference. Her co-counsel, Joseph Gutierrez, was at the bench on behalf of their client Mora. In later proceedings, Judge Pounders noted that "Miss Watson is no more than six feet away from us when we're at the side bar conference. She's at the end of the center table closest to the bench and only a matter of feet away." Id., at 36.

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