When it comes to bad language in court, a federal appeals court in Richmond has issued a warning: watch what you say and how you say it.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on October 23 unanimously upheld the criminal contempt conviction of a man who used obscene language in a federal courtroom in South Carolina last year.

The man, Robert Peoples, whose pro se civil rights case had been dismissed moments earlier, told a courtroom official: “Tell Judge (Cameron McGowan) Currie get the f— off all my cases.” Currie had previously warned Peoples that he risked the dismissal of his suit for his continued late arrival to court.

Currie wasn’t on the bench when Peoples expressed his displeasure with the judge’s ruling to throw out the case. The next day, Currie initiated contempt proceedings.

The judge who was appointed to oversee the dispute found Peoples guilty of contempt—his remarks were deemed misbehavior and an obstruction of the administration of justice—and sentenced Peoples to four months in jail. Peoples asked the appeals court to review the conviction.

“We’ve got one four-letter word, in one phrase, in one incident, out of the presence of the judge,” Peoples’ lawyer, Parks Small, the federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., told the appellate panel at a hearing in the case last month.

Small urged the court to set a high bar for the use of a judge’s criminal contempt power, saying that Peoples’ language wasn’t so insulting to justify a criminal charge.

“There are certain things that are going to happen, but it should be overlooked,” Small said in the appeals court. “Judges sometime have to tolerate things that might have offended them personally but really don’t rise to the level of contempt.”

An assistant U.S. attorney, Susan Hitt, began her argument in the Fourth Circuit by quoting Peoples directly. Hitt didn’t censor her remarks, choosing to use the language Peoples uttered that day in South Carolina federal district court.

“This case is not about a word,” Hitt told the panel judges. “This case is about this appellant, his attitude, his actions that day in Judge Currie’s courtroom.”

The business of the court, Hitt argued, was still ongoing when Peoples made his obscene remarks. Peoples’ misbehavior, the prosecutor said, “definitely obstructed the administration—the finishing of the court’s business that day.”

Chief Judge William Traxler of the Fourth Circuit and judges Paul Niemeyer and Diana Motz presided over the hearing in September. Motz wrote the 13-page opinion for the court.

In the court’s decision, Motz noted that criminal contempt does require a showing of more than the “vehemence” of foul language. Peoples, the judge said, did not just use a profanity in court.

“He targeted a judge, using profane language directed at the judge so that she would remove herself from his cases,” Motz said. “Thus, Peoples did more than merely utter profane words; he profanely threatened judicial authority.”

The appellate court rejected Small’s argument that the outburst didn’t obstruct proceedings because the judge was no longer on the bench. Motz said conduct can be contemptuous outside the presence of any ongoing court proceeding.

The panel agreed with the trial judge, Robert Conrad, the chief of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of North Carolina, who concluded that Peoples’ behavior distracted court personnel from their duties.

“Here, Peoples’ improper outburst occurred in the courtroom and interrupted court personnel in their official duties and so obstructed the administration of justice,” Motz said.

Peoples lost on his language dispute, but he did win a piece of the appeal. The Fourth Circuit reversed his conviction on a second contempt charge.

The basis of that charge? Peoples showed up late for court on the day his contempt trial was set to begin in front of Conrad, the judge who was appointed to preside in place of Currie.

Conrad, the appeals court said, didn’t give Peoples ample notice of the contempt charge and a reasonable time to prepare a defense.

“Although the court allowed Peoples the opportunity to confer with his attorney from the first contempt trial prior to making a statement in the second contempt trial, the court did not even break between the two proceedings,” Motz said.

Contact Mike Scarcella at mscarcella@alm.com.