In the legal drama film "Roman J. Israel, Esq.", the protagonist attorney is fined $5,000 for court contempt because, during a preliminary hearing, he claimed that the civil rights of his client had been violated and he continued to pursue that after the judges told him that he can address that at trial. Part of the scene is even in the movie trailer.

The transcript is the following:

Roman: Objection. Motion to strike. Mr. Ramirez was told he was not under arrest and was interrogated without his Miranda warning, yet he was refused use of the bathroom. That is a violation of civil rights.

Judge: Overruled.

Roman: If a cop hauls you in and says you can't use the bathroom, then you're being detained...

Judge: We are moving on...

Roman: What was he supposed to do, pee himself?

Judge: You can address this at trial.

Roman: I would like to address it now. I'm just saying we have a real...

Judge: Mr. Israel. Did you hear what I said?

Roman: If armed guards in this courtroom detained you and would not allow you to use the bathroom you would be detained. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Judge: I'm gonna hold you in contempt if you pursue this.

Roman: With respect, you're asking me to obey an erroneous court decision.

Judge: Find you in contempt.

Is this legal? And if so, would such decision make sense or would actually be easily overturned in appeal/cause problems to the judge/court... in other words, something a real judge would not do.

  • 2
    Finding one of the lawyers in contempt like this (especially for something so minor) effectively means that Roman will have to pay a fine for ignoring the judge's instructions. This has no bearing whatsoever on the actual case, and Roman is still free to bring up the bathroom thing at the real trial, so there's nothing to appeal.
    – Steve-O
    Jun 4, 2018 at 17:09
  • 1
    @Steve-O If Roman wants to overturn the judge's decision to deny the motion to strike (as opposed to the contempt finding) he needs to do that through an appeal, and this could have a major impact on the trial. For example if he was trying prevent a confession from being entered as evidence, he can still try convince the jury that the confession was coerced, but it would be better for the defence if the jury never heard it in the first place.
    – Ross Ridge
    Jun 4, 2018 at 19:01

1 Answer 1


Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

In court, the judge's word is law. Literally. The decisions they make at the end of a trial form the legal precedent for later, similar trials. If you disrespect the authority of the judge, you are disrespecting the authority of the court, and by extension, disrespecting the law. This is what "contempt of court" means.

The specific law governing this in the USA is Title 18 of the US Code, § 401 (emphasis mine):

A court of the United States shall have power to punish by fine or imprisonment, or both, at its discretion, such contempt of its authority, and none other, as—
(1) Misbehavior of any person in its presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice;
(2) Misbehavior of any of its officers in their official transactions;
(3) Disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command.

The third one is why Roman was found in contempt. The judge overruling Roman's objection was a clear order that he should stop pursuing his point. Roman ignored them and continued. The judge then told him to stop on four further occasions, even outright telling him he would be in contempt of court if he continued, but Roman persisted, so eventually the judge had no choice but to find him in contempt.

The judge's actions were perfectly legal and sensible. Roman was quite clearly in contempt of court, and should have argued that point at trial as the judge suggested. As for whether the fine could be overturned, I really can't say. Again, I am not a lawyer.

  • 1
    Yep, you nailed this one.
    – Paulie_D
    Jun 4, 2018 at 16:24
  • 5
    Anecdotal supporting evidence: I was recently on Jury Duty and the judge told us we were to exclusively use his definition of the relevant laws for the duration of the trial. We were, in fact, explicitly prohibited from looking up any other definitions of these laws - even in actual law books. Also, one of the lawyers nearly got charged with contempt for calling one of the witnesses "bud" (as in "buddy") during questioning. He apologized really quickly, but you should've seen the look on the judge's face. I can only assume these two had a history.
    – Steve-O
    Jun 4, 2018 at 16:59
  • 1
    OK, this answer is quite satisfactory, but before I mark it I would like some reference to the laws. I'm from Europe, and here a judge fining an attorney is not so common. Jun 4, 2018 at 17:33
  • 2
    @F1Krazy Not wanting to derail this thread but there was a high profile imprisonment for contempt just this week: Tommy Robinson.
    – richardb
    Jun 4, 2018 at 21:31
  • 4
    @supercat -- if the judge's instructions to the jury are incorrect and the defendant is convicted the conviction can be overturned on appeal. You're right that a law that doesn't clearly prohibit particular behavior can't be used to punish that behavior, and instructions to the jury should reflect that. Jun 5, 2018 at 6:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .