law-contempt criminal vs civil | coercive vs. punitive | Houston child support contempt cases


The distinction between civil and criminal contempt is based on the nature and purpose of the
penalty imposed.  Ex parte Johns, 807 S.W.2d 768, 770 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1991, orig.
proceeding).  In a civil contempt proceeding, the court is attempting to persuade the contemnor to
obey a previous order.  Id.; see also Ex parte Harrison, 741 S.W.2d 607, 609 (Tex. App.-Dallas
1991, orig. proceeding) (explaining purpose of civil contempt order is to encourage obedience).  A
judgment providing that a contemnor is to be committed unless and until he performs the
affirmative act required by the court’s order is a civil contempt order.  In re Mott, 137 S.W.3d 870,
875 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2004, orig. proceeding); Ex parte Johns, 807 S.W.2d at 770.  
Where the contemnor can avoid incarceration by obeying the court’s order, the contemnor is said
to “’carr[y] the  keys of [his] prison in [his] own pocket.’“  Ex parte Werblud, 536 S.W.2d 542, 545
(Tex. 1976) (orig. proceeding) (quoting Shillitani v. U.S., 384 U.S. 364, 368 (1966)).  

The purpose of a criminal contempt order is to punish for disobedience.  Ex parte Harrison, 741 S.
W.2d at 609.  A criminal contempt order is punitive and unconditional in nature and is an exertion
of the court’s inherent power to punish the contemnor for a completed act that affronted the court’s
dignity and authority.  Ex parte Werblud, 536 S.W.2d at 545; Gonzalez v. State, 187 S.W.3d 166,
170 (Tex. App.-Waco 2006, no pet.).  Generally, the punishment for criminal contempt is fixed and
definite; no subsequent voluntary compliance on the part of the defendant can enable him to avoid
punishment for his past acts.  Ex parte Werblud, 536 S.W.2d at 546 (quoting Ex parte Hosken, 480
S.W.2d 18, 23 (Tex. Civ. App.-Beaumont 1972, orig. proceeding)).  The key feature that
distinguishes criminal contempt from civil contempt is that its penalty is unconditional.  Ex parte
Johns, 807 S.W.2d at 771.