Case Caption: People of the Virgin Islands in re M.R. and W.V., MinorsCase Number: S. Ct. Civ. No 2015-0048Date: 02/01/2016Author: Per CuriamCitation: Summary:

An order holding an attorney in criminal contempt for remarks made at a court hearing is reversed. Criminal contempt of court that obstructs the administration of justice is willful misconduct which embarrasses, hinders, or obstructs a court in its administration of justice or derogates the court's authority or dignity, thereby bringing the administration of law into disrepute. Neither the purported acts of "arguing with the court in aggravated and elevated tones" nor "by personally criticizing a judge in open court" constitutes the obstruction of the administration of justice in this case. To the extent any disruption occurred, it is attributable not to this attorney, but to the Superior Court's reaction to her advocacy. In presenting the client's case to a court an attorney has the right to make a good-faith argument of which the judge does not approve. A Virgin Islands court may hold an individual in criminal contempt for disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command, as provided in 14 V.I.C. § 581(3), and it must be established-beyond a reasonable doubt-that a valid court order existed and that the contemnor knew of the order yet nevertheless willfully disobeyed it. Here the record does not support the Superior Court's conclusion that the attorney refused an order to leave the courtroom, and the Superior Court abused its discretion when it held her in criminal contempt for failure to obey such an order. While certain conduct may be punished summarily, here the court erred in concluding that it could preside over the matter simply because Superior Court Rule 138 does not mandate recusal. Pursuant to 4 V.I.C. § 284(4) a judge must recuse himself or herself from a case if it is probable that, by reason of bias or prejudice, a fair and impartial trial cannot be had before the judge. Here the Superior Court erred when it held that Superior Court Rule 138 governed the matter and it should have afforded the attorney all of the protections of Rule 139, including having the contempt proceeding assigned to a different judge. Attorneys possess an obligation to advocate zealously for their clients, in good faith within the bounds of the law. On some occasions, this may entail making an argument that displeases a judge, or that a judge interprets-rightly or wrongly-as criticism. In this case, the Superior Court perceived as criticism what an attorney likely intended as advocacy, and imposed the severe sanction of criminal contempt. In doing so, it ignored the maxim that the law gives judges as persons, or courts as institutions, no greater immunity from criticism than other persons or institutions. The Superior Court's May 21, 2015 opinion and order adjudicating the attorney in criminal contempt are reversed.

Attachment: Open Document or Opinion