WASHINGTON – A South Carolina man whose foul mouth got him in trouble in a federal courtroom wants the U.S. Supreme Court to take a look at his case.
Lawyers for the man, Robert Peoples, convicted on a contempt charge for an outburst last year, have filed a petition in the high court that asks the question: “Did the imperative use of the F-bomb urging the court to get off his cases ‘profanely threaten judicial authority’ and thereby constitute contempt, and did the court’s reliance on the use of such a word violate protected freedom of expression.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in October upheld the conviction and four-month jail sentence, saying that the case against Peoples was more than just a four-letter word.
“He targeted a judge, using profane language directed at the judge so that she would remove herself from his cases,” Judge Diana Motz wrote in United States v. Peoples, 11-4963, 4965. “Thus, Peoples did more than merely utter profane words; he profanely threatened judicial authority.”
Peoples was upset that U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie dismissed a pro se civil rights suit due to tardiness. Currie had warned Peoples about the consequences of not showing up to court on time.
“Tell Judge Currie get the f— off all my cases,” Peoples told a courtroom official.
Currie wasn’t on the bench at the time of the remark, and Peoples didn’t stick around longer than a minute or so.
The next day, the judge initiated a contempt case. Another federal trial judge, who was appointed to preside over the matter, found Peoples guilty following a bench trial.
In the Fourth Circuit, an assistant U.S. attorney, Susan Hitt, said the prosecution of Peoples was more about his action in court than his poor choice of words. The case, she said, was rooted in “his attitude.” She further argued in the appeals court that Peoples’ vulgar language interrupted the business of the court—an element of a contempt charge.
Parks Small, the top federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said in the Supreme Court petition, filed late last month, that the evidence against Peoples doesn’t support a criminal charge.
“The issue here questions the sufficiency of the statement, in an empty courtroom, to constitute contempt and free speech protections in phraseology of speech,” Small said in court papers.
Peoples’ obscenity, Small said, “simply does not rise to an imminent threat to the administration of justice or immediately imperil” the judge.
Peoples, the defense lawyer said, wanted Currie to remove herself from other cases Peoples had pending before the judge.
“The comment, without the f— word, has identical syntactical meaning when read as a motion, and, without the offending word, the comment simply cannot be read as ‘threatening judicial authority,’” Small said.
Small also advanced a First Amendment freedom of expression argument in the petition to the Supreme Court. In the court papers, Small said the appeals court “seems to deny any freedom of speech concerns for a profane word simply because it can be considered profane and was used in a courtroom venue.”
The U.S. Justice Department hasn’t responded to Small’s high-court petition. The deadline is early January. A brief in opposition to a petition for certiorari, however, isn’t mandatory.
@|Mike Scarcella, a reporter for The National Law Journal, an affiliate, can be contacted at email@example.com.