JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
A parent failed to comply with a valid court order to make child support payments, and defended against subsequent contempt charges by claiming that he was financially unable
On January 19, 1976, a California state court entered an order requiring respondent, Phillip Feiock, to begin making monthly payments to his ex-wife for the support of their three children. Over the next six years, respondent only sporadically complied with the order, and by December 1982 he had discontinued paying child support altogether. His ex-wife sought to enforce the support orders. On June 22, 1984, a hearing was held in California state court on her petition for ongoing support payments and for payment of the arrearage due her. The court examined respondent's financial situation and ordered him to begin paying $150 per month commencing on July 1, 1984. The court reserved jurisdiction over the matter for the purpose of determining the arrearages and reviewing respondent's financial condition.
Respondent apparently made two monthly payments but paid nothing for the next nine months. He was then served with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt on nine counts of failure to make the monthly payments ordered by the court. At a hearing on August 9, 1985, petitioner made out a prima facie case of contempt against respondent by establishing the existence of a valid court order, respondent's knowledge of the order, and respondent's failure to comply with the order. Respondent defended by arguing that he was unable to pay support during
At the hearing, respondent had objected to the application of Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1209.5 (West 1982) against him, claiming that it was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it shifts to the defendant the burden of proving inability to comply with the order, which is an element of the crime of contempt.
Three issues must be decided to resolve this case. First is whether the ability to comply with a court order constitutes an element of the offense of contempt or, instead, inability to comply is an affirmative defense to that charge. Second is whether § 1209.5 requires the alleged contemnor to shoulder the burden of persuasion or merely the burden of production in attempting to establish his inability to comply with the order. Third is whether this contempt proceeding was a criminal proceeding or a civil proceeding, i. e., whether the relief imposed upon respondent was criminal or civil in nature.
Petitioner argues that the state appellate court erred in its determinations on the first two points of state law. The court ruled that whether the individual is able to comply with a court order is an element of the offense of contempt rather than an affirmative defense to the charge, and that § 1209.5 shifts to the alleged contemnor the burden of persuasion rather than simply the burden of production in showing inability to comply. We are not at liberty to depart from the state appellate court's resolution of these issues of state law. Although petitioner marshals a number of sources in support of the contention that the state appellate court misapplied state law on these two points, the California Supreme Court
The third issue, however, is a different matter: the argument is not merely that the state court misapplied state law, but that the characterization of this proceeding and the relief given as civil or criminal in nature, for purposes of determining the proper applicability of federal constitutional protections, raises a question of federal law rather than state law. This proposition is correct as stated. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 365-366 (1970); In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 49-50 (1967); Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364, 368-369 (1966). The fact that this proceeding and the resultant relief were judged to be criminal in nature as a matter of state law is thus not determinative of this issue, and the state appellate court erred insofar as it sustained respondent's challenge to the statute under the Due Process Clause simply because it concluded that this contempt proceeding is "quasi-criminal" as a matter of California law. 180 Cal. App. 3d, at 653, 225 Cal. Rptr., at 750.
The question of how a court determines whether to classify the relief imposed in a given proceeding as civil or criminal in nature, for the purposes of applying the Due Process Clause and other provisions of the Constitution, is one of long standing, and its principles have been settled at least in their broad outlines for many decades. When a State's proceedings are involved, state law provides strong guidance about whether or not the State is exercising its authority "in a nonpunitive, noncriminal manner," and one who challenges the State's classification of the relief imposed as "civil" or "criminal" may be required to show "the clearest proof" that it is not correct as a matter of federal law. Allen v. Illinois, 478 U.S. 364, 368-369 (1986). Nonetheless, if such a challenge is substantiated, then the labels affixed either to the proceeding or to the relief imposed under state law are not controlling and will not be allowed to defeat the applicable protections of federal constitutional law. Ibid. This is particularly so in the codified laws of contempt, where the "civil" and "criminal" labels of the law have become increasingly blurred.
Instead, the critical features are the substance of the proceeding and the character of the relief that the proceeding will afford. "If it is for civil contempt the punishment is remedial, and for the benefit of the complainant. But if it is for criminal contempt the sentence is punitive, to vindicate the authority of the court." Gompers v. Bucks Stove & Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 441 (1911). The character of the relief imposed is thus ascertainable by applying a few straightforward
The Court has consistently applied these principles. In Gompers, decided early in this century, three men were found guilty of contempt and were sentenced to serve 6, 9, and 12 months respectively. The Court found this relief to be criminal in nature because the sentence was determinate and unconditional. "The distinction between refusing to do an act commanded, — remedied by imprisonment until the party performs the required act; and doing an act forbidden, — punished by imprisonment for a definite term; is sound in principle, and generally, if not universally, affords a test by which to determine the character of the punishment."
The distinction between relief that is civil in nature and relief that is criminal in nature has been repeated and followed in many cases. An unconditional penalty is criminal in nature because it is "solely and exclusively punitive in character." Penfield Co. v. SEC, 330 U.S. 585, 593 (1947). A conditional penalty, by contrast, is civil because it is specifically designed to compel the doing of some act. "One who is fined, unless by a day certain he [does the act ordered], has it in his power to avoid any penalty. And those who are imprisoned until they obey the order, `carry the keys of their prison in their own pockets.' " Id., at 590, quoting In re Nevitt, 117 F. 448, 461 (CA8 1902). In Penfield, a man was found guilty of contempt for refusing to obey a court order to produce documents. This Court ruled that since the man was not tried in a proceeding that afforded him the applicable constitutional protections, he could be given a conditional term of imprisonment but could not be made to pay "a flat, unconditional fine of $50.00." Penfield, supra, at 588.
Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364 (1966), adheres to these same principles. There two men were adjudged guilty of contempt for refusing to obey a court order to testify under a grant of immunity. Both were sentenced to two years of imprisonment, with the proviso that if either answered the questions before his sentence ended, he would be released. The penalties were upheld because of their "conditional nature," even though the underlying proceeding lacked certain constitutional protections that are essential in criminal proceedings. Id., at 365. Any sentence "must be viewed as remedial," and hence civil in nature, "if the court conditions release upon the contemnor's willingness to [comply with the order]." Id., at 370. By the same token, in a civil proceeding the court "may also impose a determinate sentence which includes a purge clause." Id., at 370, n. 6 (emphasis added). "On the contrary, a criminal contempt proceeding would be characterized by the imposition of an
In repeatedly stating and following the rules set out above, the Court has eschewed any alternative formulation that would make the classification of the relief imposed in a State's proceedings turn simply on what their underlying purposes are perceived to be. Although the purposes that lie behind particular kinds of relief are germane to understanding their character, this Court has never undertaken to psychoanalyze the subjective intent of a State's laws and its courts, not only because that effort would be unseemly and improper, but also because it would be misguided. In contempt cases, both civil and criminal relief have aspects that can be seen as either remedial or punitive or both: when a court imposes fines and punishments on a contemnor, it is not only vindicating its legal authority to enter the initial court order, but it also is seeking to give effect to the law's purpose of modifying the contemnor's behavior to conform to the terms required in the order. As was noted in Gompers:
For these reasons, this Court has judged that conclusions about the purposes for which relief is imposed are properly drawn from an examination of the character of the relief itself.
There is yet another reason why the overlapping purposes of civil and criminal contempt proceedings have prevented this Court from hinging the classification on this point. If the definition of these proceedings and their resultant relief as civil or criminal is made to depend on the federal courts' views about their underlying purposes, which indeed often are not clearly articulated in any event, then the States will be unable to ascertain with any degree of assurance how their proceedings will be understood as a matter of federal law. The consequences of any such shift in direction would be both serious and unfortunate. Of primary practical importance to the decision in this case is that the States should be given intelligible guidance about how, as a matter of federal constitutional law, they may lawfully employ presumptions and other procedures in their contempt proceedings. It is of great importance to the States that they be able to understand clearly and in advance the tools that are available to them in ensuring swift and certain compliance with valid court orders — not only orders commanding payment of child support, as in this case, but also orders that command compliance in the more general area of domestic relations law, and in all other areas of the law as well.
The States have long been able to plan their own procedures around the traditional distinction between civil and
The proper classification of the relief imposed in respondent's contempt proceeding is dispositive of this case. As interpreted by the state court here, § 1209.5 requires respondent to carry the burden of persuasion on an element of the offense, by showing his inability to comply with the court's order to make the required payments. If applied in a criminal proceeding, such a statute would violate the Due Process Clause because it would undercut the State's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e. g., Mullaney v.
The state court found the contempt proceeding to be "quasi-criminal" in nature without discussing the point. 180 Cal. App. 3d, at 653, 225 Cal. Rptr., at 750. There were strong indications that the proceeding was intended to be criminal in nature, such as the notice sent to respondent, which clearly labeled the proceeding as "criminal in nature," Order to Show Cause and Declaration for Contempt (June 12, 1985), App. 21, and the participation of the District Attorney in the case. Though significant, these facts are not dispositive of the issue before us, for if the trial court had imposed only civil coercive remedies, as surely it was authorized to do, then it would be improper to invalidate that result merely because the Due Process Clause, as applied in criminal proceedings, was not satisfied.
Applying the traditional rules for classifying the relief imposed in a given proceeding requires the further resolution of one factual question about the nature of the relief in this case. Respondent was charged with nine separate counts of contempt, and was convicted on five of those counts, all of which arose from his failure to comply with orders to make payments in past months. He was sentenced to 5 days in jail on each of the five counts, for a total of 25 days, but his jail sentence was suspended and he was placed on probation for three years. If this were all, then the relief afforded would be criminal in nature.
The state court did not pass on this issue because of its erroneous view that it was enough simply to aver that this proceeding is considered "quasi-criminal" as a matter of state law. And, as noted earlier, the court's view on this point, coupled with its view of the Federal Constitution, also led it to reinterpret the state statute, thus softening the impact of the presumption, in order to save its constitutionality. Yet the Due Process Clause does not necessarily prohibit the State from employing this presumption as it was construed by the state court, if respondent would purge his contempt judgment by paying off his arrearage. In these circumstances, the proper course for this Court is to vacate the judgment below and remand for further consideration of § 1209.5 free from the compulsion of an erroneous view of federal
We therefore vacate the judgment below and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE KENNEDY took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE SCALIA join, dissenting.
This case concerns a contempt proceeding against a parent who repeatedly failed to comply with a valid court order to make child support payments. In my view, the proceeding is civil as a matter of federal law. Therefore, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not prevent the trial court from applying a legislative presumption that the parent remained capable of complying with the order until the time of the contempt proceeding.
The facts of this case illustrate how difficult it can be to obtain even modest amounts of child support from a noncustodial parent. Alta Sue Adams married respondent Phillip William Feiock in 1968. The couple resided in California and had three children. In 1973, respondent left the family. Mrs. Feiock filed a petition in the Superior Court of California for the County of Orange seeking dissolution of her marriage, legal custody of the children, and child support. In January 1976, the court entered an interlocutory judgment of dissolution of marriage, awarded custody of the children to Mrs. Feiock, and ordered respondent to pay child support beginning February 1, 1976. The court ordered respondent to pay $35 per child per month for the first four months, and $75 per child per month starting June 1, 1976. The order has never been modified.
After the court entered a final judgment of dissolution of marriage, Mrs. Feiock and the children moved to Ohio. Respondent made child support payments only sporadically and stopped making any payments by December 1982. Pursuant to Ohio's enactment of the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA), Mrs. Feiock filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Stark County, Ohio. See Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3115.09(B) (1980). The complaint recited that respondent was obliged to pay $225 per month in support, and that respondent was $2,300 in arrears. The Ohio court transmitted the complaint and supporting documents to to the Superior Court of California for the County of Orange, which had jurisdiction over respondent. Petitioner, the Orange County District Attorney, prosecuted the case on behalf of Mrs. Feiock in accordance with California's version of URESA. See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1670 et seq. (West 1982).
After obtaining several continuances, respondent finally appeared at a hearing before the California court on June 22, 1984. Respondent explained that he had recently become a
Respondent made payments only for August and September. Respondent appeared in court three times thereafter, but never asked for a modification of the order. Eventually, the Orange County District Attorney filed Orders to Show Cause and Declarations of Contempt alleging nine counts of contempt based on respondent's failure to make nine of the $150 support payments. At a hearing held August 9, 1985, the District Attorney invoked Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1209.5 (West 1982), which says:
In an effort to overcome this presumption, respondent testified regarding his ability to pay at the time of each alleged act of contempt. The court found that respondent had been able to pay five of the missed payments. Accordingly, the court found respondent in contempt on five of the nine counts and sentenced him to 5 days in jail on each count, to be served consecutively, for a total of 25 days. The court suspended execution of the sentence and placed respondent on three years' informal probation on the conditions that he make monthly support payments of $150 starting immediately and additional payments of $50 per month on the arrearage starting October 1, 1985.
Respondent filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Court of Appeal, where he prevailed on his argument that § 1209.5 is unconstitutional as a mandatory presumption shifting to the defendant the burden of proof of an element of a criminal offense. That is the argument that the
The California Court of Appeal has erected a substantial obstacle to the enforcement of child support orders. As petitioner vividly describes it, the judgment turns the child support order into "a worthless piece of scrap." Brief for Petitioner 47. The judgment hampers the enforcement of support orders at a time when strengthened enforcement is needed. "The failure of enforcement efforts in this area has become a national scandal. In 1983, only half of custodial parents received the full amount of child support ordered; approximately 26% received some lesser amount, and 24% received nothing at all." Brief for Women's Legal Defense Fund et al. as Amici Curiae 26 (footnote omitted). The facts of this case illustrate how easily a reluctant parent can evade a child support obligation. Congress recognized the serious problem of enforcement of child support orders when it enacted the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, Pub. L. 98-378, 98 Stat. 1305. S. Rep. No. 98-387, pp. 5-6 (1984); H. R. Rep. No. 98-527, pp. 30, 49 (1983). The California Legislature responded to the problem by enacting the presumption described in § 1209.5. Now, says petitioner, the California Court of Appeal has sabotaged the California Legislature's effort.
Contempt proceedings often will be useless if the parent seeking enforcement of valid support orders must prove that the obligor can comply with the court order. The custodial parent will typically lack access to the financial and employment records needed to sustain the burden imposed by the decision below, especially where the noncustodial parent is self-employed, as is the case here. Serious consequences follow from the California Court of Appeal's decision to invalidate California's statutory presumption that a parent continues
Petitioner asks us to determine as a matter of California law that inability to comply with a support order is an affirmative defense to a contempt charge, so that the burden of persuasion may be placed on the contemnor under Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228 (1987). Petitioner also contends that the Court of Appeal erred in supposing that § 1209.5 shifts the burden of persuasion rather than merely the burden of production, citing Lyons v. Municipal Court, 75 Cal.App.3d 829, 838, 142 Cal.Rptr. 449, 452 (1977); Oliver v. Superior Court, 197 Cal.App.2d 237, 242, 17 Cal.Rptr. 474, 476-477 (1961); 4A J. Goddard, California Practice: Family Law Practice § 686 (3d ed. 1981); 14 Cal. Jur. 3d, Contempt §§ 32, 71 (1974); and 6 B. Witkin, Summary of California Law, Parent and Child § 137 (8th ed. 1974). But the interpretation of California law is the province of California courts. I agree with the majority that, for purposes of this decision, we should assume that the California Court of Appeal correctly determined these matters of state law. Martin v. Ohio, supra; United Gas Public Service Co. v. Texas, 303 U.S. 123, 139 (1938). If the Court of Appeal was in error, the California courts may correct it in future cases.
The linchpin of the Court of Appeal's opinion is its determination that the contempt proceeding against respondent was criminal in nature. The court applied what it understood are the federal due process standards for mandatory evidentiary presumptions in criminal cases. See Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 167 (1979) (mandatory presumptions are impermissible unless "the fact proved is sufficient to support the inference of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt"); Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 523-524 (1979). This Court has recognized, by contrast, that civil contempt proceedings do not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that the rules governing use of presumptions differ accordingly. In the civil contempt context, we have
The characterization of a state proceeding as civil or criminal for the purpose of applying the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is itself a question of federal law. Allen v. Illinois, 478 U.S. 364 (1986). The substance of particular contempt proceedings determines whether they are civil or criminal, regardless of the label attached by the court conducting the proceedings. See Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364, 368-370 (1966); Penfield Co. v. SEC, 330 U.S. 585, 590 (1947); Nye v. United States, 313 U.S. 33, 42-43 (1941); Lamb v. Cramer, 285 U.S. 217, 220-221 (1932); Gompers v. Bucks Stove & Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 441-443 (1911). Civil contempt proceedings are primarily coercive; criminal contempt proceedings are punitive. As the Court explained in Gompers: "The distinction between refusing to do an act commanded, — remedied by imprisonment until the party performs the required act; and doing an act forbidden, — punished by imprisonment for a definite term; is sound in principle, and generally, if not universally, affords a test by which to determine the character of the punishment." 221 U. S., at 443. Failure to pay alimony is an example of the type of act cognizable in an action for civil contempt. Id., at 442.
Whether a particular contempt proceeding is civil or criminal can be inferred from objective features of the proceeding and the sanction imposed. The most important indication is whether the judgment inures to the benefit of another party to the proceeding. A fine payable to the complaining party
An analogous distinction can be drawn between types of sentences of incarceration. Commitment to jail or prison for a fixed term usually operates as a punitive sanction because it confers no advantage on the other party. Gompers, supra, at 449. But if a contemnor is incarcerated until he or she complies with a court order, the sanction is civil. Although the imprisonment does not compensate the adverse party directly, it is designed to obtain compliance with a court order made in that party's favor. "When the [contemnors] carry `the keys of their prison in their own pockets,' the action `is essentially a civil remedy designed for the benefit of other parties and has quite properly been exercised for centuries to secure compliance with judicial decrees.' " Shillitani, supra, at 368 (citations omitted).
Several peculiar features of California's contempt law make it difficult to determine whether the proceeding in this case was civil or criminal. All contempt proceedings in California courts are governed by the same procedural rules. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. §§ 1209-1222 (West 1982 and Supp. 1988); In re Morris, 194 Cal. 63, 67, 227 P. 914, 915 (1924); Wright, Byrne, Haakh, Westbrook, & Wheat, Civil and Criminal Contempt in the Federal Courts, 17 F. R. D. 167, 180 (1955). Because state law provides that defendants in civil contempt proceedings are entitled to most of the protections guaranteed to ordinary criminal defendants, the California courts have held that civil contempt proceedings are quasi-criminal under state law. See, e. g., Ross v. Superior Court, 19 Cal.3d 899, 913, 569 P.2d 727, 736 (1977);
Certain formal aspects of the proceeding below raise the possibility that it involved criminal contempt. The orders to show cause stated that "[a] contempt proceeding is criminal in nature" and that a violation would subject the respondent to "possible penalties." App. 18, 21. The orders advised respondent of his right to an attorney. Ibid. During the hearing, the trial judge told respondent that he had a constitutional right not to testify. Id., at 27. Finally, the judge imposed a determinate sentence of five days in jail for each count of contempt, to be served consecutively. See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1218 (West 1982) (contempt may be punished by a fine not exceeding $500, or imprisonment not exceeding five days, or both); cf. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1219 (West 1982) (contempt may be punished by imprisonment until an act is performed, if the contempt is the omission to perform the act).
Nevertheless, the substance of the proceeding below and the conditions on which the sentence was suspended reveal that the proceeding was civil in nature. Mrs. Feiock initiated the underlying action in order to obtain enforcement of the child support order for the benefit of the Feiock children. The California District Attorney conducted the case under a provision of the URESA that authorizes him to act on Mrs. Feiock's behalf. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1680 (West 1982). As the very caption of the case in this Court indicates, the District Attorney is acting on behalf of Mrs. Feiock, not as the representative of the State of California in a criminal prosecution. Both of the provisions of California's
These indications that the proceeding was civil are confirmed by the character of the sanction imposed on respondent. The California Superior Court sentenced respondent to a fixed term of 25 days in jail. Without more, this sanction would be punitive and appropriate for a criminal contempt. But the court suspended the determinate sentence and placed respondent on three years' informal probation on the conditions that he comply with the support order in the future and begin to pay on the arrearage that he had accumulated in the past. App. 40. These special conditions aim exclusively at enforcing compliance with the existing child support order.
Our precedents indicate that such a conditional sentence is coercive rather than punitive. Thus in Gompers, we observed that civil contempt may be punished by an order that "the defendant stand committed unless and until he performs the affirmative act required by the court's order." 221 U. S., at 442 (emphasis added). In Shillitani, we decided that civil contempt could be punished by a prison sentence fixed at two years if it included a proviso that the contemnor would be released as soon as he complied with the court order. 384 U. S., at 365. In this case, if respondent performs his obligations under the original court order, he can avoid going to jail at all. Like the sentence in Shillitani, respondent's prison sentence is coercive rather than punitive because it effectively "conditions release upon the contemnor's willingness to [comply]." Id., at 370.
It is critical that the only conditions placed on respondent's probation, apart from the requirement that he conduct himself generally in accordance with the law, are that he cure his past failures to comply with the support order and that he continue to comply in the future.
This Court traditionally has inquired into the substance of contempt proceedings to determine whether they are civil or criminal, paying particular attention to whether the sanction