Case of Contempt: Ted Stevens Prosecutors Held in Civil Contempt

By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on December 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had an uncharacteristically busy day last week, releasing eleven opinions on Friday. Out of the many interesting holdings from the day's bounty comes the appeal of civil contempt findings against the two Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys involved in the late Sen. Ted Stevens' prosecution.

The two attorneys, William M. Welch and Brenda K. Morris, were held in civil contempt by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan for violating a court order to turn over documents to Stevens' defense team.

Now, what kind of contempt they were held in became the issue, and the case became a primer in the difference between civil and criminal contempt.

For those of you who would never dream of being held in contempt of court, here's a little refresher: Civil contempt findings are temporary remedies to a situation. Findings of criminal contempt, on the other hand, are intended to "vindicate the authority of the court," acting as permanent stains on your record.

If you're still confused, don't worry. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has observed that "it may not always be easy to classify a particular act as belonging to either one of these two classes."

Welch and Morris believed Judge Sullivan really held them in criminal contempt because of his language, his threat of sanctions and the fact that he didn't lift the findings until more than a year later -- although the prosecutors disclosed the requested information hours after they were held in contempt. If they had in fact been held in criminal contempt the attorneys argued, it was improperly given, and they were not privy to procedural protections under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Judge Sullivan, on the other hand, stated that the contempt was civil in nature because it was coercive and was purged once they turned over the documents.

In a glass-half-full analysis instructed by the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit held that the Ted Stevens prosecutors should look at the results rather than the process. Since Morris and Welch produced the requested documents, didn't receive sanctions and were eventually expunged from the contempt finding, the "character and nature of the contempt were civil."

Despite their appeal, Morris and Welch seem to have embraced the D.C. Circuit's holding using the District's particular brand of political spin:

"We are gratified that the Court of Appeals clarified the district court's order and ruled not only that the contempt was civil rather than criminal, but also made it clear that the contempt had been purged," Welch's attorneys said in a statement. "We thought it was a close question, and it's good to have it resolved this way."

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