This week we celebrated again the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Many are familiar with Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. King wrote his famous letter while being held on contempt of court charges. A judge had ordered King and his followers to not hold any further protests in Birmingham. However, King believed that all Americans have the right to peacefully protest. So, he continued to protest. King was arrested by order of the court for defying its order. During his eleven day stay at the jail he penned his famous letter.
King was correct, according to the U.S. Constitution. The highest law of the land should have protected his right to peacefully protest. Unfortunately, judges sometimes abused the power given to them by the government. When that happens there is little that can be done about it.
A court-made doctrine called the “collateral bar rule” prevents people found in contempt of court from appealing the court’s decision after they are released. In other words, even if the judge knowingly abused his power, citizens cannot recover damages for wrongful imprisonment when that confinement is done under the guise of “contempt of court.”
The reason asserted for this unfortunate rule is that courts must have a free hand to maintain respect for their authority. The thinking is that if judges or the courts could be held liable for damages after wrongfully finding a person in contempt of court, then the judges would be less likely to use the contempt power. Also, it is asserted that people would be more likely to ignore court orders, like King did, if not for the collateral bar rule.
The Birmingham court’s abuse of its power is just one example, among thousands, of judges issuing orders that are not supported by law. Martin Luther King Jr stood up to injustice, despite knowing that he would go to jail. He did what he knew to be right, knowing that there would be consequences. This is what great leaders do.
Measures can be taken to have court orders altered or rescinded. However, while they are in force, violation of a court order, even an order that should not have been issued, can lead directly to a jail cell.
If a court issues an order that may effect you, contact a lawyer immediately. They will explain your options and the consequences of any actions you may take.