Monday, February 5, 2018

Michigan man's attempted courtroom attack on Dr Larry Nassar in USA Gymnastics case shines light on gross misapplication of contempt of court laws

Randall Margraves (left) tries to attack Dr. Larry Nasser (in red, lower center)
 in a Michigan courtroom. (From

A Michigan man was facing up to $7,500 in fines and more than three months in jail after his attempted courtroom attack last week on Dr. Larry Nassar, the physician at the center of the USA Gymnastics sexual-abuse scandal. (See video at the end of this post.)

Randall Margraves should thank his lucky stars that Judge Janice K. Cunningham chose not to hold him accountable for a contempt of court that happened right under her nose. The incident raises at least three issues that hit close to home here at Legal Schnauzer: (1) Finding -- or not finding -- individuals in contempt of court; (2) The dubious actions of courts in cases involving female victims, especially those targeted by male authority figures: (3) Gross inequity in application of laws across jurisdictions -- in some instances, the laws themselves vary wildly across state lines; in others, judges and juries apply the law with such inconsistency that it pitches any notion of "equal protection of the law" on its head.

Some Web sites have treated Margraves as a hero, and he clearly benefited from having a judge who was determined to ignore her state's statutory provisions regarding a contempt that could not be more clear.

When I read last Friday about the attempted attack on Nassar, I figured Margraves would be subject to relatively straightforward and mild contempt law, such as what you find in Alabama. Boy, was I wrong about that?

Here is the gist of contempt law in Alabama: The state recognizes two kinds of contempt: (1) Criminal contempt, which generally applies to an unruly act that takes place in view of the court and disrupts its operations; (2) Civil contempt, which is designed to coerce enforcement of the court's orders and is mostly used in cases of child support. A subject can be held for civil contempt until he complies with the court's order. Punishment for criminal contempt is limited to a $100 fine and imprisonment not to exceed five days. (See Code of Alabama 12-11-30.)

A reasonable person might think a criminal contempt would be treated more severely than a civil contempt. But that's not how it works in Alabama. If you are going to be held in contempt, you definitely want it to be criminal because the court is greatly limited in what it can do to you.

In fact, I was stunned at the differences between Alabama law and Michigan law on the subject of contempt. For example, Michigan law makes it clear that criminal contempt is considered a crime. I believe that's also the case in Alabama, but state law seems to dance around that subject.

Michigan's language on criminal v. civil contempt gets pretty convoluted, and it also uses the terms "direct contempt" (happening within the court's view) v. "indirect contempt" (happening outside the court's view. Michigan does its best to complicate what should be a fairly simple subject, but still, it seems clear Margraves engaged in a direct criminal contempt.

The punishment for that can sting big time in Michigan. From the Michigan Judicial Institute's Benchbook for Contempt of Court, which is 189 pages long:

Permissible Punishments for Criminal Contempt Sentencing discretion for criminal contempt is limited by statute to a fine of not more than $7,500, imprisonment not to exceed 93 days, or both. MCL 600.1715(1). The court may also place a contemnor on probation in the manner provided for persons guilty of a misdemeanor.

So, Musgraves was looking at a possible $7,500 in fines, 93 days of imprisonment, and probation -- or all three. Ouch! Alabama's $100 fine and five days in jail sounds downright puny -- even unmanly -- compared to what they do in Michigan. Heck, Alabama could become known as a bastion of LIBERALISM when it comes to contempt of court. What if word gets out to our legislators? What if it becomes known that Nick Saban operates in a limp-wristed state that coddles contemnors? Could that torpedo Saint Nick's recruiting efforts? 

What does all of this say about "equal protection of the law" and female victims of male authority figures? We've seen these issues play out in an up-close-and-personal way, and it's not a pretty sight to behold. Our examination continues in an upcoming post.

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