Pounders v. Watson

PETITIONER: William R. Pounders, Judge
RESPONDENT: Penelope Watson
LOCATION: New York State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 96-1383
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 521 US 982 (1997)
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1997

Facts of the case

A California trial judge convicted attorney Penelope Watson of summary contempt for her conduct in court. After the judge had stated repeatedly not to discuss punishment, Watson asked her client whether he was facing the death penalty and whether he was facing life without possibility of parole. The judge found that Watson had willfully refused to comply with his order not to discuss punishment and that Watson's questions had permanently prejudiced the jury in favor of her client. On appeal, Watson argued that her due process rights were violated because she did not have notice of the prohibited conduct and because the trial judge could not have known without a hearing whether her conduct was willful. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals, in reversing, concluded that Watson had not engaged in a pattern of repeated violations that had pervaded the courtroom and threatened the dignity of the court.

Question

Did the Court of Appeals misinterpret the Constitution's due process requirements as applied to an attorney's summary contempt conviction for willful defiance when questioning her client?