Trials & Litigation

Appeals court says magistrate had power to hold former TV judge Joe Brown in contempt and jail him

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It appears that a former TV-show judge may be headed back to the slammer over a Tennessee juvenile-court outburst last year, in which he talked himself into an escalated five-day jail sentence after initially getting 24 hours for contempt of court.

Although Joe Brown characterized his post-ruling debate with the bench as zealous representation of a pro bono client or, at worst, indirect contempt of court, neither the magistrate nor the Memphis-based Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed. The magistrate had authority to summarily punish Brown for direct criminal contempt of court for his “willful misbehavior,” which is treated more seriously when committed by an attorney than by a layperson, the court explained in a Monday written opinion (PDF).

It includes a transcript of the portion of the child-support hearing at issue, which had earlier that day been continued for a month because the opposing party had not been notified of it. Brown then stepped in for the woman, who had previously represented herself pro se in the case, and argued that the case should be decided immediately.

After Brown threatens to file a habeas corpus petition and “close this place down” if the woman has to return for another hearing, Shelby County Juvenile Court Magistrate Harold Horne warns him that he is “very close” to being held in contempt.

Brown responds by challenging the magistrate’s authority to hear the case, in what the appeals court describes as “a condescending manner.”

“Mr. Brown, the Court finds you in contempt,” the magistrate replies. At that point, Brown offers to pay the court $10, apparently contending that this is the maximum penalty it can impose on him. The magistrate then sentences him to 24 hours in the county jail.

A back-and-forth ensues in which Horne three times asks Brown if he wants another day in jail. Finally he imposes a second day on Brown and asks the attorney if he wishes to continue.

Brown makes several more comments, again threatening to close the court down via a habeas petition, without penalty. But when he calls the court “a circus” Horne gives him a third day in jail.

“You can do all you want,” Brown replies.

“Four days,” Horne says.

Brown again argues the court’s claimed lack of jurisdiction and gets five days. At that point, the bailiffs remove him from the courtroom.

Although he spent only hours in jail before being released on his own recognizance later that day, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported at the time, that was because lawyers for Brown filed a criminal-court habeas petition.

Hence, it appears that by upholding the original five-day sentence and remanding the case to juvenile court for “further proceedings,” including the taxation of costs, the appeals court may be setting the stage for Brown to serve the remainder of his five-day jail term.

Hat tip: WREG

Related coverage: “Former TV judge Joe Brown goes to jail after he is found in contempt; hear the audio”

ABC News: “Judge Joe Brown Describes His Time In Jail”

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