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Late litigant evens the score with trial judge

Chronic tardiness is not the way to win points with a judge. After a recent showdown in a federal court in South Carolina, the court and the offending litigant each came away with an appellate win.

The plaintiff, who repeatedly showed up late to court and then cursed a judge after she left the courtroom, has overturned one of his two contempt convictions.

Robert Peoples was late for jury selection and for trial of the first of his several 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suits. South Carolina U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie warned that if he was late again, she would dismiss his case with prejudice.

Trial of his second suit was set to begin the next day at 9:30 a.m. At 9:15 a.m., Peoples called Currie’s chambers and said he had a flat tire. Roadside assistance confirmed his story, and Currie sent a marshal to pick up Peoples for court. During the second trial, Peoples was disruptive and disrespectful, and Currie cautioned that he risked a contempt charge.

At trial of his third suit several days later, the judge again warned Peoples about tardiness. He muttered disrespectfully, and arrived 15 minutes late for court the following day. Currie heard argument, found his actions willful and dismissed his case with prejudice and left the courtroom. Peoples told a deputy clerk to tell the judge to “get the f— off all my cases … I started to tell her a— something today.” A court reporter turned on her voice recorder to capture Peoples’ comments.

Peoples was more than an hour late for the contempt proceedings conducted by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. Conrad found Peoples guilty of criminal contempt of Currie and sentenced him to four months in jail. He then promptly found Peoples in contempt for showing up late for the contempt hearing.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the first contempt citation, but reversed Peoples’ contempt conviction for tardiness at the first contempt trial because Peoples had no meaningful chance to contest the charge and sentence for an additional 30 days in jail.

The summary contempt conviction was plain error, said Judge Diana Gribbon Motz in the appellate court’s Oct. 23 published opinion.

–Deborah Elkins

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