Muncie City Judge Has Man Jailed for Passing Out Letter Criticizing Her

By Paul K. Ogden

It is a story that might get national attention as an example of an abuse of judicial authority. The Star-Press reported recently that Curtis L. Westbrook, 55, was arrested Tuesday of this week, just a day after Muncie City Court Judge Dianna Bennington found him guilty of contempt for distributing a letter.

Bennington wrote that Westbrook was, "creating confusion that disturbed the business and proceedings of the court by distributing a letter to undermine the authority of the court and to provide legal advice to defendants in the courtroom."

Judge Bennington clearly doesn't understand the difference between criminal and civil contempt. The Court of Appeals in Mitchell v. Stevenson, 677 NE 2d 551, 560 (Ind. App. 1997) explains the difference:

A civil contempt s a violation of a court order resulting in a proceeding for the benefit of the aggrieved party. As such, any type of penalty in a civil contempt proceeding must be coercive or remedial in nature. In contrast, a criminal contempt is an act directed against the authority of the court which obstructs the administration of justice and which tends to bring the court into disrepute. Thus, any type of penalty is punitive in nature because its purpose is to vindicate the authority of the court and it benefits the State rather than the aggrieved party.

Certainly Judge Bennington has the right to, if necessary to take Westbrook into custody to protect her courtroom from being disrupted. That's a remedial measure for civil contempt. But the fact is Westbrook had already left the courtroom. He was taken into custody when he came back. Judge Bennington wanted Westbrook punished for his previous conduct in interfering with her courtroom. That is clearly criminal, not civil, contempt.

Because the allegation constituted criminal contempt it was the prosecutor's call whether to bring contempt charges and any such charges are brought in the name of the State of Indiana. In the proceeding, Westbrook should have been afforded all the protections that go to criminal defendants, including the right to a jury trial and the appointment of a public defender if Westbrook could not have afforded an attorney. But Judge Bennington's city court does not handle criminal matters and its unlikely that Westbrook was advised of his rights. Further, the impropriety of Judge Bennington sitting in judgment of a harsh critic of hers is frankly off the charts. Judge Bennington needs a refresher course on how contempt works and the responsibilities she has as a judicial officer to avoid appearances of impropriety.

The bottom line is that Judge Bennington appeared to very offended by Westbrook's public criticism and exercised extremely poor judgment in trying to silence her critic. The irony is that while Mr. Westbrook's letter criticizing Judge Bennington would have had little effect on her political prospects for re-election, Judge Bennington's abuse of her authority has created a much, much bigger issue that is much more likely to cause her to lose re-election.

Judge Bennington would be well advised to seek legal counsel who I'm sure will advise her: 1) to admit she made a mistake; and 2) to release Mr. Westbrook from jail...immediately. An apology to Mr. Westbrook would also be in order.

Read more at Ogden on Politics

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