United Mine Workers v. Bagwell: the Civil/criminal Indirect Contempt Fine Distinction Revisited - Franklin P. Brannen, Jr.

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal,Virginia
Publication year1995
CitationVol. 46 No. 2


United Mine Workers v. Bagwell: The Civil/Criminal Indirect Contempt Fine Distinction Revisited

United Mine Workers v. Bagwell1 involves the imposition of indirect contempt fines stemming from a labor dispute in Virginia.2 In April 1989, respondents Clinchfield Coal and Sea "B" Mining Companies filed suit to enjoin petitioner International Union, United Mine Workers of America from conducting unlawful strike activities.3 The trial court entered an injunction that prohibited the union and its members from undertaking illegal strike-related activities.4 In subsequent hearings, the court imposed over $64,000,000 in fines.5 The trial court required that the companies prove violations of the injunction beyond a reasonable doubt but did not afford the union the right to a jury trial.6 While the contempt order was on appeal the parties settled the labor dispute through an agreement that vacated the contempt fines.7 The trial court granted the parties' joint motion to dismiss, lifted the injunction, and vacated the fines that were payable to the companies.8 The trial court determined that the remaining $52,000,000 was not absolved through the settlement and was still owed by the unions.9 Since the companies had withdrawn from the action and local Commonwealth Attorneys disqualified themselves, the trial court appointed John L. Bagwell to collect the remaining fines on behalf of the Commonwealth.10 The Court of Appeals of Virginia reversed the order imposing contempt fines and ordered that the contempt fines be vacated pursuant to the settlement agreement.11 The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed and held that since the fines were civil, imposition of the fines did not require a jury trial.12 The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.13 Indirect criminal contempts involving fines in excess of fifty million dollars are of such serious nature that the contemnor is entitled to full criminal process including a jury trial.14

From its inception in English common law, the distinction between civil and criminal contempt fines has been based on the nature of the contumacious conduct.15 The basic distinction that is still used today in the United States was established in Gompers v. Buck Stove.16 The Court held that the determination as to whether a contempt fine is criminal or civil is based on the character and purpose of the contempt fine.17 Even at this early stage, the determination between civil and criminal contempts was a difficult task.18 Justice Lamar stated that "[cjontempts are neither wholly civil nor altogether criminal. And 'it may not always be easy to classify a particular act as belonging to either of these two classes. It may partake of the characteristics of both.'"19 Criminal contempts are those that are punitive in nature and designed to vindicate the authority of the court.20 On the other hand, civil contempt fines are imposed to compel a party to undertake an act commanded by the court.21 In Gompers, the Court focused on the nature of the injunction the contemnors had violated.22 Another distinction elicited at this time was that civil contempt fines involve the parties to the action, whereas criminal contempt fines are between the public and the contemnor.23 The Court categorized the contempts as civil based on the fact that the contempt proceedings were instigated by one party against the other.24 The action did not involve a representative of the United States acting to vindicate judicial authority and thus was not viewed as being criminal in nature.25 While Gompers offers guidance in distinguishing between contempts, the Court, in Hicks v. Feiock,26 recently emphasized the overlapping nature of civil and criminal contempt:

In contempt cases, both civil and criminal relief have aspects that can be seen as either remedial or punitive or both: when a court imposes fines and punishments on a contemnor, it is not only vindicating its legal authority to enter the initial court order, but it also is seeking to give effect to the law's purpose of modifying the contemnor's behavior to conform to the terms required in the order.27

While state law may offer procedural guidelines to a determination of the nature of contempt, the question is one of federal law not state law.28 In Hicks the Court established that criminal contempt is characterized as determinate and unconditional while civil contempt is conditional and purgable.29

In the present case, the Supreme Court restated the characteristics that typify criminal and civil contempts.30 From the standards established in Gompers and Hicks, the Court laid out the framework that the classification of a contempt is...

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