This past April, a milestone passed with little fanfare: H. Beatty Chadwick entered his thirteenth year in Pennsylvania jail. He has never been adjudicated guilty of a criminal offense, but, rather, continues to face charges of civil contempt related to a 1995 order in divorce litigation. In that proceeding, Chadwick was ordered to turn over $2.5 million in assets that the courts found he had stashed overseas. Twelve years and many appeals later, Chadwick still refuses to comply. The Third Circuit’s dispositive, and standard-setting, ruling came in 2002 in an opinion by then-judge Alito:
“The Supreme Court has never endorsed the proposition that confinement for civil contempt must cease when there is “no substantial likelihood of compliance.” On the contrary, in words that might as well have been written to describe the case now before us, the Bagwell Court stated that “[t]he paradigmatic coercive, civil contempt sanction … involves confining a contemnor indefinitely until he complies with an affirmative command such as an order ‘to pay alimony, or to surrender property ordered to be turned over to a receiver ….’ ” Bagwell, 512 U.S. at 828, 114 S.Ct. 2552 (emphasis added) (citation omitted) . . . Because the state courts have repeatedly found that Mr. Chadwick has the present ability to comply with the July 1994 state court order, we cannot disturb the state courts’ decision that there is no federal constitutional bar to Mr. Chadwick’s indefinite confinement for civil contempt so long as he retains the ability to comply with the order requiring him to pay over the money at issue. “
On one level, twelve years in jail without the full panoply of due process protections that come with a criminal trial seems unjust. Much of Chadwick’s defense rests on the claim that he doesn’t have the money: in a criminal trial, maybe the burden of proof would have made his claim more plausible. And there is a nagging feeling that he would not have seen twelve years for stealing $2.5 million, so maybe he has served his time, however it is constituted.
But, ultimately, Alito’s opinion seems right to me. (I say that even though it reversed a judgment issued by the Judge I clerked for.) If the constitutional status of a civil contempt order depended on its effect on defendants’ will, the resulting rule would produce perverse incentives. Those with greater fortitude and demonstrated willingness to continue to serve time rather than comply would be let out earlier than those who seem afraid of jail. This would promote false confidence and bravado, and reduce the general deterrent effect of contempt sanctions.
Unless circumstances change, Chadwick will die in jail to preserve an idea: even civil law must be obeyed. As Robert Cover wrote, “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death.”