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

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on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

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

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