Missouri Judge Exceeds Authority in Holding Oregon County Clerk in Contempt of Court

In State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, Betty Grooms petitioned the Supreme Court of Missouri for a writ of mandamus and prohibition to terminate a proceeding against her for contempt of court. The request for relief stems from a court order entered by Judge Steven A. Privette directing Grooms, the elected circuit court clerk, to prepare a spreadsheet of court costs assessed in criminal cases in Oregon County for a set period of time. After multiple unsatisfied attempts to provide the requested information, Privette ordered Grooms to show cause as to why she should not be held in contempt of court. The Supreme Court of Missouri issued a preliminary writ barring Privette from proceeding with the contempt action, which was subsequently made permanent in the instant case.

By: Fabian Reyher

State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, 667 S.W.3d 92 (Mo. 2023) (en banc)

I.   Introduction

            In State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the presiding judge of the 37th judicial circuit, Judge Steven A.  Privette, exceeded his authority in holding county clerk Betty Grooms in contempt of court for allegedly failing to satisfy the judge’s request for a spreadsheet of criminal case data in Oregon County.[1]  The Court examined the judicial powers granted to the circuit courts by Section I of the Missouri Constitution, holding  Privette’s order of contempt was “unnecessary as a safeguard to the proper function of the court as a judicial tribunal.”[2]

II. Facts and Holding

            In early 2022, the Howell and Oregon County Sheriff’s Offices complained to Privette that their departments were not reimbursed by the State of Missouri for costs they incurred in incarcerating individuals in their county jails.[3]  Missouri law requires the county clerk to prepare a bill of costs for expenses incurred in criminal cases that are chargeable to the state by law.[4]  The clerk submits the bill of costs to the county judge, who then reviews and certifies the bill, allowing the state to reimburse the counties for the costs.[5]           

            The Howell County complaint stemmed from the incarceration of an individual in the Howell County jail, with charges originating from Oregon County.[6]  The Howell County Sheriff provided the Oregon County Circuit Clerk, Betty Grooms, a certification of the department’s costs associated with the incarceration of the individual but did not receive any reimbursement from the state.[7]  This led to Privette’s realization that he was not regularly receiving bills of costs from Oregon County.[8]

            Privette subsequently issued an order directing Grooms to prepare a spreadsheet of all of the criminal cases disposed in Oregon County starting in January, 2019.[9]  Among other information, Privette asked that the spreadsheet include the date that a bill of cost was prepared and the expected reimbursement from the state for each criminal case.[10]  In response, Privette alleged that Grooms sent him more than 800 pages of information consisting of every docket entry in every criminal case for the specified time period.[11]  Grooms later submitted another spreadsheet, which Privette claims also did not satisfy his order.[12]

            Following the failed attempts to satisfy Privette’s request for information, Privette issued a separate order directing Grooms to appear before the court to show cause for why she should not be held in contempt of court and appointed a prosecuting attorney to the case.[13]  Grooms filed a third response, which allegedly came closer to fulfilment but still failed to satisfy the original order.[14]  Consequently, the prosecuting attorney filed amotion for contempt of court against Grooms, and the proceeding was set before Privette on September of 2022.[15]

            Prior to the proceeding, Grooms filed motions for a change of judge and to dismiss the case altogether, both of which Privette overruled.[16]  Grooms then petitioned the Supreme Court of Missouri for a writ of mandamus and prohibition compelling Privette to sustain the motion to dismiss and prohibit the prosecuting attorney from continuing with the contempt action.[17]  The Court issued a preliminary writ of prohibition, directing Privette to dismiss the action or to show cause for why the writ should not be made permanent.[18]  Ultimately, the court held the writ should remain permanent and Privette exceeded his authority in holding Grooms in contempt of court.[19]

III. Legal Background

A. The Missouri Constitution and the Judicial Power of Contempt

            Article V, Section I of the Missouri Constitution vests the “judicial power of the state” to the Supreme Court of Missouri, the courts of appeals, and the circuit courts.[20]  The judicial power, as explained in State ex rel. Pulitzer Publishing Company v. Coleman, is the “the power to perform what is generally recognized as the judicial function—the trying and determining of cases in controversy.”[21]  Circuit courts can exercise this judicial power, as they have original jurisdiction over all cases and controversies, civil and criminal, in the corresponding counties in the state of Missouri.[22]

            The judicial power includes any incidental power necessary for the performance of the judicial function.[23]  One such incidental power is the power to seek and punish for contempt of court.[24]  Thus, a Missouri court’s power to seek contempt derives from the Missouri Constitution, as it is a power that may be necessary and proper for the operation of the judicial function.[25]  The power to punish for contempt is an inherent power that is undisputed in Missouri.[26]  However, its use is limited to circumstances only in which it is necessary to serve the judicial function.[27]

B. Limitations on Missouri Courts’ Power of Contempt

            The Supreme Court of Missouri addressed the limitations of a court’s authority in exercising its judicial function in State ex rel. Geers v. Lasky.[28]  In Geers, the circuit clerk, pursuant to his statutory duties, reassigned a deputy clerk from a division and assigned another to take his place.[29]  The division’s circuit judge did not approve of the reassignment and asked the circuit clerk to reinstate the original deputy clerk.[30]  After the circuit clerk failed to do so, the judge initiated a contempt proceeding against the circuit clerk, alleging the clerk violated a local rule that any reassignment must be approved by the division’s judge.[31]  The clerk then petitioned the Supreme Court of Missouri for a writ to prevent the judge from continuing with the contempt action.[32]

            In considering whether the circuit judge had the authority to control the appointment of a deputy clerk to a specific position in the court, the Supreme Court of Missouri recognized that courts have an inherent authority to make rules governing the operation of the court.[33]  However, the court noted that “[t]he limitation on the courts’ inherent power is that the expense incurred or the thing done must be reasonably necessary to preserve the courts’ existence and protect it in the orderly administration of business.”[34]  The Court found that controlling the appointment of a deputy clerk to a specific position in the court is not a necessary function to preserve the judicial function.[35]  Thus, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the judge had exceeded his authority, and the Court granted the writ relief requested and prohibited the judge from continuing the contempt action against the circuit clerk.[36]

            The Supreme Court of Missouri specifically addressed the power of contempt and its derivation from the Missouri Constitution in Coleman.[37]  There, a newspaper published an article criticizing the circuit court for its handling of a recently dismissed case.[38]  The circuit attorney for the court initiated a contempt charge against the newspaper publisher.[39]  In discussing the nature of the court’s power to punish for contempt as “derived from the constitution” and as “part of the inherent judicial power of the courts,” the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the circuit court did not have authority to hold the newspaper publisher in contempt.[40]  The Court reasoned that the power to punish for criticism of the circuit court’s handling of a previous case “is unnecessary as a safeguard to the proper functioning of the court as a judicial tribunal, such publications do not constitute punishable contempt.”[41]

IV. Instant Decision

            In the instant decision, the Supreme Court of Missouri unanimously held that the circuit and presiding judge of the 37th judicial circuit in Missouri, Judge Steven A. Privette, exceeded his authority in attempting to hold the Oregon County Circuit Clerk, Betty Grooms, in contempt of court for failing to provide satisfactory information relating to incarceration costs for criminal cases in Oregon County, Missouri.[42]

            The Court began its analysis by acknowledging the statutory requirements of the circuit clerk to calculate the costs accrued in criminal cases and prepare a bill of costs chargeable to the state.[43]  Subsequently, the circuit judge is required to “strictly examine the bill of costs” and, among other requirements, verify the associated convictions, ensure the services charged were rendered for that conviction, verify that the fees charged are expressly authorized by law.[44]

            While the preparation and certification of a bill of costs are statutory duties of the county clerks and judges, the Court found that completion of those tasks serve only the purpose of reimbursing counties for their incarceration costs.[45]  The Court noted that the clerk’s role in regard to the statutory duty is unrelated to the resolution of any criminal matter.[46]  Specifically, a clerk’s failure to provide an adequate bill of cost does not impact the court’s ability to determine the controversy.[47]  Thus, the Court found that the reimbursements at issue have no impact on the court’s judicial function.[48]

            The Supreme Court of Missouri additionally made sure to acknowledge the possible misinterpretations from this holding.[49]  The Court stated that the holding should not be interpreted as barring circuit judges from requesting information relating to reimbursement costs from the circuit clerk.[50]  Instead, the Court emphasized that the court in the instant case merely lacked authority to hold the circuit clerk in contempt for her alleged failure to provide such information.[51]  The Court suggested other means of resolving a dispute between a judge and clerk that are more appropriate, such as communicating with the clerk, other judges, or court administrators.[52]  If the issue still cannot be resolved, the Court noted that the sheriff departments who are allegedly harmed by Grooms actions could bring legal action for declaratory or injunctive relief.[53]

V. Comment

            The Supreme Court of Missouri’s opinion in State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette clarified the judicial power of Missouri courts in holding someone in contempt of court.[54]  The power of contempt has a long history in Missouri, deriving from the Missouri Constitution and precedent.[55]  Its purpose is to protect and ensure the administration of justice in Missouri courts.[56]  However, the limits on this power are necessary, since the power of contempt can be abused by courts.[57]

            In Privette, it is clear that the circuit clerk’s actions were not so severe as to impede the judicial functions of the court.[58]  While the clerk may not have provided the judge the exact information he requested, Grooms made multiple attempts to correct the spreadsheet.[59]  Court clerks serve an essential function in any courtroom and, as shown in this case, deal with hundreds of cases at a time.[60]  Mistakes are inevitable.  If a judge can hold a clerk in contempt for failing to provide satisfactory information regarding something as simple as a spreadsheet of cases, the power of contempt becomes a dangerous tool in the wrong judge’s hand.

VI. Conclusion

            With Privette, the Supreme Court of Missouri clarified Missouri courts’ power to hold someone in contempt of court. In doing so, Missouri courts’ ability to overextend influence was drastically limited for the better.

[1] State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, 667 S.W.3d 92, 99–100 (Mo. 2023) (en banc).

[2] Id. at 98 (quoting State ex rel. Pulitzer Pub. Co. v. Coleman, 152 S.W.2d 640, 646 (Mo. 1941) (en banc)).

[3] Id. at 94.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 94-95.

[18] Id. at 95.

[19] Id. at 99–100.

[20] Mo. Const. art. V, § 1.

[21] State ex rel. Pulitzer Pub. Co. v. Coleman, 152 S.W.2d 640, 646 (Mo. 1941) (en banc).

[22] Mo. Const. art. V, § 14.

[23] Coleman, 152 S.W.2d at 646.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] State ex rel. Geers v. Lasky, 449 S.W.2d 598 (Mo. 1970) (en banc).

[29] Id. at 599.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 600–01.

[34] Id. at 601.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] State ex rel. Pulitzer Pub. Co. v. Coleman, 152 S.W.2d 640 (Mo. 1941) (en banc).

[38] Id. at 641–44.

[39] Id. at 644.

[40] Id. at 647–48.

[41] Id.

[42] State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, 667 S.W.3d 92, 99–100 (Mo. 2023) (en banc).

[43] Id. at 97 (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 550.140, 550.020).

[44] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 550.210.

[45] Privette, 667 S.W.3d at 98.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id. at 98–99.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] State ex rel. Grooms v. Privette, 667 S.W.3d 92 (Mo. 2023) (en banc).

[55] See State ex rel. Pulitzer Pub. Co. v. Coleman, 152 S.W.2d 640 (Mo. 1941) (en banc).

[56] Id.

[57] See Ex Parte Robinson, 86 U.S. 505, 505-6 (1873) (limiting the power of contempt in federal courts only to cases in which the misbehavior or presence of a person leads to an obstruction of justice).

[58] Privette, 667 S.W.3d 92, 99–100.

[59] Id. at 94.

[60] Id.