Justice Rose Vela of the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals has authored a Memorandum Opinion in which she thoroughly and lucidly discusses contempt of court. The opinion is linked below, but here are some of the statements of law it contains:
- A judgment of contempt may be either civil or criminal.
- The purpose of civil contempt is remedial and coercive. A judgment of civil contempt exerts the judicial authority of the court to persuade the contemnor to obey an order of the court when obedience will benefit an opposing litigant. Imprisonment is conditional upon obedience and therefore the civil contemnor "carries the keys of (the) prison in (his) own pocket." When a relator has committed civil contempt, he may procure his release by complying with the provisions of the court's order.
- Criminal contempt, by contrast, is punitive in nature in that the sentence is not conditioned upon a promise of future performance; rather, the contemnor is being punished for a completed act that affronted the dignity and authority of the court.
- Texas law is clear that a petitioner may not be confined for civil contempt unless he or she has the ability, but refuses, to perform the conditions for release. Stated otherwise, a person cannot be incarcerated indefinitely for civil contempt if he or she does not have the ability to perform the condition required for release. An order of contempt imposing a coercive restraint is void if the condition for purging the contempt is impossible of performance. Similarly, the involuntary inability to comply with an order is a valid defense to criminal contempt.
- The relator bears the burden of proving his inability to comply. We do not weigh the evidence, but determine only if there is no evidence to legitimize the relator's confinement. Thus, the issue in habeas corpus review is whether the relator has conclusively established his inability to comply.
In this case, the relator (the person held in contempt) was imprisoned for failure to pay child support. To avoid a finding of contempt, a child support obligor who fails to pay must prove that he or she:
(1) lacked the ability to provide support in the amount ordered;
(2) lacked property that could be sold, mortgaged, or otherwise pledged to raise the funds needed;
(3) attempted unsuccessfully to borrow the funds needed; and
(4) knew of no source from which the money could have been borrowed or legally obtained.
Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.008(c). All four elements must be proved.
Because the relator did not prove these elements in the trial court, the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals denied his petition for writ of habeas corpus and left undisturbed his 180-day jail sentence. Ex parte Coronado, No. 13-09-00149-CV (Tex. App. - Corpus Christi Apr. 9, 2009).