Kim Davis, Contempt, Remedies, and The Pursuit of Happiness
This week, I'd like to publicly thank Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for showing us all just how fundamentally horribly people in this country understand the concept of "contempt."
Kim Davis was jailed last week on civil contempt charges for failure to follow three separate court orders that she issue marriage licenses to same sex couples and refusing to allow her subordinate clerks to do the same. A staunch Christian, Kim Davis felt that it was not only improper for her to issue licenses to same sex couples, but it was improper for anyone in her office to do the same as all marriage licenses in Rowan County bore her name. The matter, she stated, was one of "heaven and hell" for her, and meant she had a sincere religious objection to the issuance of these licenses.
Three separate courts issued orders for Kim Davis to do her job. Kim Davis said she would not, because religion. As a result of her non-compliance with the duties of her office, Kim Davis was found guilty of "contempt" and sentenced to stay in jail until the Federal judge sentencing her felt she would comply with her duties. Her deputies are ostensibly cranking out the marriage licenses while she sits in jail, an alleged "martyr" for her faith.
What happened here isn't a violation of her Christian beliefs and subsequent jailing thereof. It's a method the court has to enforce its authority. Contempt is the mechanism by which judges give force to the disobedience of their laws. There's two types of contempt, and within those two types of contempt lie both civil and criminal contempt.
Direct contempt is when you do something in court that defies a judge's orders. If you speak to a prisoner in the "penalty box" when expressly told not to do so by a judge, then you've committed direct contempt. Indirect contempt is when a judge's orders are willfully defied outside of the court. That's what happened here with Kim Davis--she chose to defy the Court's orders outside the courtroom itself by refusing to perform one function of her job.
Within the context of direct vs. indirect contempt, we have both "civil" and "criminal" contempt. "Criminal" contempt is when someone violates a law by their defiance. It's a tricky line to push, but good examples exist. If one violates an Order of Protection in Knox County, for example, the violator faces criminal contempt charges of up to ten days in jail and a potential $500 fine for each violation. In each case, though, the violator holds the keys to the jail cell as they know there's a specific time frame at which they could potentially be released.
"Civil" contempt is a bit trickier, as the person holding the keys to the jail cell is the judge. Indefinite jailing is possible here, as the Court will potentially jail a person until such time as the Court feels he or she is keen on complying with the violated Court orders. Fines are also possible here, but apparently the Federal Judge sentencing Kim Davis didn't feel as though a fine would be reasonable or appropriate. I suspect he thought at least two or three crowdfunding campaigns would begin if fines were assessed, absent knowledge that companies like GoFundMe have chosen to abstain from supporting Davis, and chose jail as the appropriate option.
The law has now been upheld. The battle in Rowan County is far from over. Davis politely told the judge "thank you" on her way to booking and processing, and now rallies to restore Kim Davis to freedom are underway outside where she sits. The judge tasked with making sure laws are complied with did his job. And yet it wasn't good enough, because now Kim Davis is apparently a "martyr."
"We didn't mean to make her a martyr" is the rallying cry from the LGBTQ activists and their attorneys, who wanted to see her fined. Well, that's all well and good, but what you wanted isn't what the judge saw as the appropriate penalty for her refusal to comply with the Court and perform her duties as an elected official. There's only three options in a contempt case: fine, jail, or say "no disobedience of Court orders" and move on with our respective lives. Option three didn't work, option one wasn't good enough for the judge to feel like something was going to happen making compliance happen, so the remedy chosen by the judge--absent any other alternatives--was jail. Your feelings on how she should be dealt with don't really come into the equation at that point.
And she's not a martyr. Go check blessed Saint Google and you'll see that a martyr is someone who's been killed for their beliefs. She's not a martyr--she's a crybaby who doesn't want to do the job to which she was elected and cares not one whit about the laws of the state in which she resides. She also doesn't want to get another job.
But people will call her a "martyr" because that's a great sound bite. People will go flock to her like she's the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. She will get a book deal, she will go on Fox News live from the Rowan County Jail, and people will call this the next great salvo in a war on Christianity that really doesn't exist and has yet to even begin.
As an addendum, I support neither side in this debate. I write this to simply point out that no one really understands what happened in Rowan County, Kentucky, and many will chose not to in an attempt to show the other side they are Right, and the other side is Wrong.