The Missouri Supreme Court on May 16 shot down a presiding judge’s attempt to hold one of his circuit’s clerks in contempt for failing to prepare a spreadsheet to his liking.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said that judges’ inherent power of contempt is limited to instances where it is necessary to the “judicial function,” such as trying and deciding cases.
The case stems from a contempt order that Judge Steven Privette, the presiding judge of the 37th Judicial Circuit in south-central Missouri, entered against Oregon County Circuit Clerk Betty Grooms. Privette had asked Grooms to prepare a spreadsheet containing information on costs assessed in more than three years’ worth of criminal cases but repeatedly rejected her efforts as inadequate. Grooms maintains that she complied with the judge’s request.
The judge had alleged that delays in providing the cost bills from Oregon County has prevented county officials from getting reimbursements from the state. State law requires the presiding judge to review and sign those cost bills. But Judge W. Brent Powell, writing for the unanimous court, said that task has nothing to do with the administration of justice.
“At first blush, it may appear problematic to find Judge Privette could request the particular information at issue yet did not have authority to enforce that directive through a contempt proceeding,” he wrote. “This Court recognizes this case presents a unique situation in which the circuit courts of Missouri are, by statute, required and authorized to complete tasks unrelated to the administration of justice. But that is only to say contempt is not the appropriate mechanism to ensure completion of such tasks.”
Powell added a lengthy list of “lawful and preferable options” a judge might take, such as discussing the matter with other judges, the Office of State Courts Administrator or members and staff of the Supreme Court itself.
David Duree of David M. Duree & Associates in O’Fallon, Illinois, an attorney for Grooms, noted that Supreme Court precedents over several decades have limited the use of contempt to enforce administrative matters.
“I read it as saying that a judge could hold a clerk in contempt if the clerk was doing something that threatened the judge’s ability to perform his judicial function,” he said. “I can’t imagine what that would be. But it doesn’t include preparing spreadsheets of court cost bills.”
Privette’s position was argued by Heath Hardman, an assistant prosecutor in Howell County who was appointed to bring the contempt action.
“While I respect the Supreme Court’s opinion, the decision is frustrating from a prosecution standpoint as it leaves an unresolved issue that has cost Oregon and Howell Counties tens of thousands of dollars,” he wrote in an email.
He added that he appreciated the court’s clarifying the judge’s administrative powers and the multiple paths it laid out to resolve the issue short of contempt, noting that the opinion itself said “the interests of the citizens are better served by the judge’s and clerk’s cooperation.”
“Until further legal action is taken, one can only hope that Mrs. Grooms will cooperate with Judge Privette to file cost bills, fully embracing the duties she was elected to perform and to the benefit of the Counties that have been negatively affected thus far,” he wrote.
The case is State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, SC99794.