July 15, 1963
AUNGST CONTEMPT CASE.
Appeal, No. 114, Jan. T., 1963, from order of Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, Nov. T., 1962, No. 569, in re proceedings of contempt of court against Bud Aungst, Mgr., Joseph L. Maguire, John T. Maguire and Kenneth F. Maguire, officers. Order affirmed.
W. J. Krencewicz, for appellants.
Calvin J. Friedberg, with him Hicks, Williamson, Friedberg, Jones & McKenna, for appellee.
Before Bell, C.j., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'brien and Roberts, JJ.
[ 411 Pa. Page 596]
OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS
This is an appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County (one judge dissenting) denying (without prejudice) the petition of nineteen members of the bar of that court (appellants) for a rule to show cause why the respondents (appellees) should not be adjudged in contempt of court. The matter below was entirely ex parte; appellees became participants in this proceeding only before this Court upon receipt of appellants' briefs on appeal.
There is no dispute as to the facts material to this appeal. On February 14, 1961, thirteen members of the bar of Schuylkill County, as officers of that court (later joined by six additional lawyers), presented
[ 411 Pa. Page 597]
a written statement to the court en banc, reciting that respondents (officers and agents of a radio station) for more than a year had been making radio broadcasts which "vigorously pursued a course of conduct to influence those, past and present, who serve as members of the Jury ... and to illegally influence those who may subsequently serve as members of a jury. ..." The statement asserted also that respondents' conduct constituted "what is commonly known as a 'Jury Fix'" and that the broadcasts were "not confined to argument and persuasion but also to almost daily threats of intimidation as to people who serve as members of the Jury and to castigate and hold them up to public ridicule in the event that their verdicts were not as suggested ..." by the broadcasts. Members of the juries were characterized as "bums, incompetents and delinquents." The statement further recited that the broadcasts "repeatedly castigated all of the Judges" of the court below, "in an apparent endeavor to intimidate the court into handing down sentences, opinions and handling the business of the court in accordance with the ideas, suggestions and opinions ..." of the radio station.
The written statement concluded with a request to the court to give consideration to a rule to show cause why the respondents should not answer to the court for these charges of contempt.
On February 20, 1961, the nineteen lawyers presented to the court below a formal sworn petition repeating in essence their prior representations and further alleging that respondents "have almost daily committed contempts of court by their unwarranted and criminal accusations [as to all four judges of the court] that certainly and positively affect the proper administration of justice. ..."*fn1
[ 411 Pa. Page 598]
Following presentation of the petition, the court took no immediate action upon it. In fact, the petition apparently remained, without disposition, in the hands of the judge to whom it was presented. Almost eight months later, on October 5, 1961, the complaining lawyers placed the matter upon the current hearing list, and the president judge assigned the matter to himself. There it remained without hearing or disposition until October 22, 1962, twenty months after the petition had been initially presented, when the court ordered the petition "denied without prejudice."
On January 4, 1963, the court below filed the following opinion: "The matter is now on appeal with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, appeal having been filed December 2, 1962. It is the opinion of the majority of the Court that the Petition, as filed and as amended, is lacking in form and content to warrant the relief prayed for, to wit: Rule for Contempt of Court. ..." (Citations omitted.)
Although the record*fn2 lacks sufficient completeness and fails as an adequate basis for determination of the issues sought to be adjudicated by appellants - but rejected by the court below without hearing, it does, however, suggest the apparent existence of a local
[ 411 Pa. Page 599]
atmosphere which is detrimental to the proper administration of justice. Such a climate invites appropriate corrective action.*fn3 Nevertheless, it is not essential to our present determination to discuss available remedies or to decide whether the alleged conduct of the respondents constituted contempt of the court below.
The power of this Court to review a finding of contempt and to affirm, reverse or modify the order of the lower court is not disputed. We have so acted on numerous occasions and shall continue to do so. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Lofton, 389 Pa. 273, 133 A.2d 203 (1957); Mack Appeal, 386 Pa. 251, 126 A.2d 679 (1956); Messmore's Estate, 293 Pa. 63, 141 Atl. 724 (1928). However, our appellate courts have found it necessary in only one class of cases to review the failure of a lower court to enter an order of contempt - where there has been direct disobedience of, or refusal to comply with, a decree or order of that court and the court itself, upon motion or other formal request of the party directly affected by such disobedience, refuses to compel compliance or to hold the disobedient party in contempt. See Davidyan v. Davidyan, 333 Pa. 465, 3 A.2d 921 (1939); Braunschweiger's Estate, 322 Pa. 394, 185 Atl. 753 (1936)(refusal by fiduciary to distribute); State Grand Lodge v. Morrison, 277 Pa. 41, 120 Atl. 769 (1923); Ensslen Estate, 163 Pa. Superior Ct. 246, 60 A.2d 429 (1948) (refusal to turn over property to administratrix).
The instant proceeding is separate and independent of any other action or litigation and obviously was not instigated to enable a private litigant or interest to secure obedience or compliance with an order or decree of court previously obtained at the instance of a moving party for the latter's benefit or protection. It is
[ 411 Pa. Page 600]
not concerned with the disregard of a court decree. Its purpose is not enforcement or compliance and does not involve vindication of the authority of the court.
It is clear that the court below could determine initially whether it has been contemned. Its authority to do so is unquestioned. In a proceeding of this nature, the court below should be the primary protector of its judicial dignity and conscience, since it is the tribunal primarily concerned with maintaining its dignity and public standing as a judicial forum and is, therefore, empowered to protect itself from insult. However, its decision not to exercise that power is a choice we shall not, in this instance, disturb. We shall affirm its order, particularly since it does not determine the controversy or foreclose any rights. Our determination is necessarily limited to the facts now before us and is in no way a restriction upon our power to review contempt proceedings and to enter appropriate adjudications.
Courts of law exist primarily to adjudicate justly and expeditiously the controversies of litigants. Our courts must be responsive to current needs and give satisfaction to the causes of litigants, so that when they leave the courtroom they have reason to feel that they have been accorded a prompt and fair hearing. Respect for law and the judicial process will not be promoted by undue delays and other circumstances which offend the community's sense of propriety and otherwise fail to attract public respect and acceptance.
All realize that the judicial process, like any other human activity, requires a certain amount of time for the proper performance of its important deliberative function. Immedaiate determinations are not always possible, particularly in complicated and extended litigation. Rule 78*fn4 of this Court recognizes that in some
[ 411 Pa. Page 601]
instances 60 days or more may be needed by a lower court to dispose of pending matters and requires that all such undisposed matters be reported to the Prothonotary of this Court with an explanation of the cause of the delay.*fn5 There can, however, be no acceptable reason for a delay of twenty months in acting upon a motion for rule to show cause.
The circumstances suggest the following inquiry: If the petition was so utterly without merit as the court's brief order indicated, should not the matter have been disposed of far more promptly? On the other hand, if the petition appeared to have the merit which the court's delay indicated, did it not then deserve at least some opportunity for hearing?
We may not, in light of the record presented, refrain from expressing our disapproval of the court's undue delay as well as the practice by which it was achieved.
CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION BY MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BELL:
There is nothing in the record or in the facts and circumstances of this case which could even remotely justify the failure of the lower Court to promptly dispose of this petition.*fn* That Court's delay in disposing
[ 411 Pa. Page 602]
of this petition undoubtedly tends to impair the confidence and respect of the bar and of the public for our Courts.
By long established tradition which has been recognized by decisions of this Court, attorneys who have been admitted to practice in a Pennsylvania Court are Officers of that Court.*fn** The purpose of the petition filed by these attorneys was to uphold and vindicate the honor, the public's confidence in, and the prestige of the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, and even more importantly, to insure the rendition of justice unhampered and uncontaminated by any outside influence. The Supreme Court is the ultimate Protector and Preserver of Justice. If a Court is collusive or if a Judge, in the face of mob hysteria or of unjustifiable attacks by powerful interests, is so timorous
[ 411 Pa. Page 603]
that justice is jeopardized, this Court must take appropriate action. Even a citizen who pays a tax of $1.00 or less has a right and a legal standing to challenge any alleged unlawful expenditure of public money by a public official. A fortiori, these petitioners had a right and a legal standing to present this petition.
Furthermore, under our King's Bench power of general supervision over all inferior Courts, this Court has jurisdiction and power to affirm or reverse or modify the Order of the lower Court with appropriate directions for further proceedings in that Court. While it is unnecessary to cite additional authority for such an obvious proposition, it is further supported by the Act of May 20, 1891, P.L. 101, § 2, 12 P.S. § 1164, and by a score of decisions which hold that this Court has power to review appeals in the nature of certiorari even when an Act of the Legislature is silent upon the right of appeal or provides that no appeal will lie from a decision of the lower Court: Keystone Raceway Corporation v. State Harness Racing Commission, 405 Pa. 1, 5, 6, 173 A.2d 97; Bell Appeal, 396 Pa. 592, 597, 598, 152 A.2d 731; First Bellefonte Bank and Trust Company v. Myers, 410 Pa. 298, 188 A.2d 726; Dauphin Deposit Trust Co. v. Myers, 388 Pa. 444, 460, 462, 130 A.2d 686.
I would hold (1) that these petitioners had a legal standing (a) to file their petition and (b) to appeal; and (2) the lower Court committed a clear abuse of discretion in denying their petition without a hearing.
I would, therefore, reverse the Order of the lower Court, and direct the lower Court to issue a rule to show cause, and thereafter to very promptly hold a hearing, and very promptly decide all the pertinent issues which are raised.