Contempt, in law, showing disrespect to, or disobeying, a court or legislature. In a trial, any action that impairs the authority or the dignity of the court (the presiding judge) is criminal contempt of court, and the offender may be punished. Such actions include violence, insulting language, and disruptive behavior. Failure to obey a court order given for the benefit of a party to the proceedings (failure, for example, to produce a document) is not a crime but a civil offense. The judge may order imprisonment or a daily fine until the person cited for contempt obeys the order.
Contempt of Congress refers to the refusal of a subpoenaed witness to appear before a congressional investigating committee or to give testimony before it. However, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have defined circumstances in which congressional questioning is not constitutional and therefore does not have to be answered. Although Congress is empowered to imprison a witness cited for contempt, such punishment usually results from a grand jury indictment and a trial in federal district court.