Criminal Contempt on the Web

Every practicing attorney and judge has by now likely seen the video of the Texas attorney who appeared at a court hearing conducted via Zoom in the form of a fluffy, white kitten. “I’m here live. I’m not a cat,” has emerged as the mantra of the week. The enthusiasm with which the recording has been shared reflects both the ubiquity of web-based hearings and the technological mishaps that can derail them. But technology is not the only thing that can go awry in a remote proceeding. Sometimes the problems are more fundamentally human, arising from behaviors that, were they committed in the courtroom, might lead to a finding of direct criminal contempt. Repeatedly talking over a judge or another litigant, arguing with a judge after having been asked to be quiet, cursing at a judge or another person present, using a racial slur, or appearing in a state of undress are examples. When a person engages in this sort of behavior in a remote proceeding, may the judge summarily punish the act as direct criminal contempt? Or must the judge issue an order to show cause and address the contemptuous behavior in a subsequent proceeding?

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