How Yawning Got One Court Spectator Six Months in the Slammer and Other Disturbing Acts of Judicial Tyranny
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Last month, in Illinois, Circuit Judge Daniel Rozak was handing down a sentence in a felony drug case when a courtroom spectator did something unforgivably disruptive. He yawned.
The move (by its very nature) may have been spontaneous, but Rozak found it highly offensive nonetheless. He slapped the yawner -- 33-year-old Clifton Williams, the cousin of the defendant -- with the highest contempt sentence possible under Illinois law: six months in jail.
In the description of the contempt order, Williams "raised his hands while at the same time making a loud yawning sound," a move ostensibly calculated to undermine the judge's authority.
"It was not a simple yawn," a spokesman for the state's attorney's office said. "It was a loud and boisterous attempt to disrupt the proceedings."
Perhaps. But Williams's family -- who rely on him to help care for his 79-year-old grandmother and could not afford a lawyer to appeal the sentence -- was understandably stunned.
"I was flabbergasted because I didn't realize a judge could do that," Williams's father, Clifton Williams Sr., told the Chicago Tribune. "It seems to me like a yawn is an involuntary action."
Williams's grandmother, who lives with her grandson, called the sentence "ridiculous."
"You've got all these people shooting up kids, and here this boy yawns in court [and gets six months]. It's crazy," she said.
Indeed, while Williams was carted off to jail, his cousin, the drug-case defendant, got two years' probation.
Despite the six-month sentence, three weeks later, Williams was freed. Maybe it was the bad press. Maybe the judge had a change of heart. Either way, according to press reports, "as Williams stood before the bench in shackles," the judge reiterated that he had not gone to jail for simply yawning but for making a sound "that was offensive to the court."
Such incidents, where local judges treat courtroom spectators like trespassers on their personal kingdoms, are hardly rare in American courthouses. For all the discussion of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's "judicial temperament" during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, it is not uncommon to find judges who use their positions on the bench to impose arbitrary and extreme punishments on people who are not even on trial.
"Contempt of court" is hardly a new concept, of course. Judges have long enjoyed the power to impose order in their courtrooms by cracking down on those who disrupt it, including lawyers who argue before them. (This power even has a solid place in popular culture; in the movie My Cousin Vinnie, for example, the wisecracking and amateurish New York lawyer, played by Joe Pesci, routinely spent the night in jail for regularly offending a humorless Alabama judge, with his accent, clothing and smart-ass remarks.)
Despite this, the concept was once controversial, and with good reason: The notion that one's rights of free speech flies out the window upon entering a court of law is not only ironic, it's somewhat at odds with democratic ideals. But the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the power in cases "where immediate punishment is essential to prevent demoralization of the court's authority before the public."
Fair enough. But as one blogger pointed out after the Williams story broke: "Let us not forget: judges are public servants. They receive a good salary; lifetime medical benefits; and pensions from the very people who come to their courtrooms and who are subject to their contempt orders." These same taxpayers are the ones who foot the bill to imprison people like Williams.
In recent years, pundits, politicians and judicial nominees have popularized the notion that judges are nothing more than cool arbiters of the law, reflexively objective as umpires (an idea that, taken to its logical conclusion, would mean "we would need only one, and it could be a supercomputer," as Slate legal writer Dahlia Lithwick quipped this summer).