March 11, 2012

Why You Will Not Go To Jail For Using Comic Sans In A Pleading In Federal Court (Though Maybe You Should)

James Kimsey was not a lawyer.

But when Frederick Rizzolo was deep in a hard bit of contentious litigation, James Kimsey wanted to help out. Mr. Rizzolo's lawyers withdrew from the case. Mr. Rizzolo tried to go on without a lawyer, but his efforts were poor. One can imagine that Mr. Rizzolo felt the situation was bleak.

68920_law_education_series_5.jpgJames Kimsey came to the rescue. While not a lawyer, Mr. Kimsey had some prior legal experience - he was previously sanctioned for the unauthorized practice of law. He was also, apparently, willing to work for free.

Mr. Kimsey ghostwrote some of Mr. Rizzolo's pleadings in his civil case. He seemed to be acting a lot like a lawyer. He wrote a summary judgment motion. He cited to Erie Railroad Co. v. Thompkins. I suspect he even wore a blue suit with a red tie.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rizzolo's opposing counsel got wind of the help Mr. Kimsey was providing. He filed a "Motion to Reveal Pro Se Litigant Rick Rizzolo's Ghost Writer."

The Motion to Reveal went to a hearing. A United States Magistrate Judge determined that Mr. Kimsey was ghostwriting pleadings for Mr. Rizzolo. The Magistrate Judge referred a prosecution for criminal contempt to the United States Attorney's Office.

18 U.S.C. § 402

Mr. Kimsey was prosecuted under section 402 - the criminal contempt of court statute. Eighteen U.S.C. section 402 reads:

Any person, corporation or association willfully disobeying any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of any district court of the United States or any court of the District of Columbia, by doing any act or thing therein, or thereby forbidden, if the act or thing so done be of such character as to constitute also a criminal offense under any statute of the United States or under the laws of any State in which the act was committed, shall be prosecuted for such contempt as provided in section 3691 of this title and shall be punished by a fine under this title or imprisonment, or both.

The government argued that Mr. Kimsey violated this, by breaking one of the standing local rules of the Court that says that only lawyers can practice law in federal court.

Mr. Kimsey asked for, and was denied, a jury trial. He was convicted. And, in United States v. Kimsey, the Ninth Circuit reversed, and dismissed the criminal contempt charges against Mr. Kimsey.

Mr. Kimsey's case was reversed for two reasons. First, he had a right to a jury trial that was not honored. Second, the Ninth Circuit held that violating a local rule does not subject a person to criminal contempt.

A Statutory Jury Right

Normally, if the most you can receive in prison is six months or less, you do not have a right to a jury trial. The constitutional right to a jury trial only kicks in after you are eligible for a sentence or more than six months.

However, Section 402 refers to 18 U.S.C. § 3691. Section 3691 grants a right to a jury trial. Thus, even though there was no constitutional jury trial right, there was a statutory jury trial right. And, Mr. Kimsey didn't get one.

So the case was remanded for that reason.

There Are Rules and Then There Are Rules

More significantly, though, the court of appeals held that a local rule is not the kind of rule that a person can be punished with criminal contempt for violating.

This was a straightforward question of statutory interpretation - does violating a "rule" mean (a) violating a local rule or a court rule (e.g., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) or (b) violating a rule directed at a specific person (or narrowly defined class of persons).

The district court assumed that it meant (a), as had the Ninth Circuit and Seventh Circuits earlier. Though, assuming isn't the same as deciding, so the Ninth Circuit reconsidered the question here. Moreover, the D.C. Circuit had actually decided that "rule" for these purposes means something directed at a specific person.

The court of appeals looked at what the dictionary says -- though sadly the dictionary from the time that section 402 was made law has both definitions. So, the Ninth Circuit had to turn elsewhere.

A Word Is Known By The Company It Keeps

The appellate court, implicitly following up on Judge Posner's observations about statutory interpretation and reading words in context, noted that,

although standing court rules already existed in the early twentieth century,9 and so, based on etymology alone, it would not be inconceivable that § 402's use of the term "rule" referred to them, this possibility is severely under- mined by the application of a basic canon of statutory interpretation: "The canon, noscitur a sociis, reminds us that a word is known by the company it keeps, and is invoked when a string of statutory terms raises the implication that the words grouped in a list should be given related meaning."

Noting that the string of words in section 402 is actually "any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of any district court of the United States" and that each of these is an action directed at a person specifically - except perhaps "rule" - the court of appeals read "rule" to mean something directed at a person specifically too.

You Will Not Probably Go To Jail For Using Comic Sans

The court of appeals also reasoned that allowing a criminal contempt prosecution for violating a local rule would lead to a deliciously absurd result:

If "rule[s]" encompass local court rules, then . . . a court would be able to fine or imprison attorneys for, let's say, failing to conform to local rules specifying the width of margins, appropriate typeface, or kind of paper used for pleadings. See, e.g., D. Haw. L.R. 10.2 ("All documents presented for filing shall be on white opaque paper of good quality . . . with one inch margins . . . ."); C.D. Cal. L.R. 11-3.1.1 ("A monospaced [type]face may not contain more than 10-1/2 characters per inch."); C.D. Cal. L.R. 11.3.2. ("All documents shall be submitted on opaque, unglazed, white paper (including recycled paper) not less than 13-pound weight."). It is at least exceedingly unlikely that Congress intended to authorize convictions of criminal contempt for disobeying ministerial, generally applicable requirements forbidding low-quality paper or excessively small type.

Though I suspect some workers in some court's Clerk's offices would not see criminal sanctions for using the wrong font or paper as a bad result.

About This Blog

The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog is published by The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC in Washington, DC. The Kaiser Law Firm represents people who have been charged with federal crimes, are under federal investigation, or have a federal criminal appeal.

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