This is a case about enforcing a divorce decree that prohibited the formerly married partners from communicating with each other “in a coarse or offensive manner.” (Hard to imagine that would ever happen with divorced couples.)
The trial court found that Gayle Magness (formerly Gayle Coppock) had violated that provision 84 times, found her in contempt, and ordered sanctions that included incarceration for that violation. (( The trial court actually ordered three consecutive 180-day terms of incarceration, which would be waived if she reported for four nights of confinement and paid her ex-husband’s attorney’s fees. )) She did not show up at the appointed time and, instead, sought relief through the writ of habeas corpus. The Texas Supreme Court stayed her incarceration while considering her case.
The Texas Supreme Court ultimately held that this contempt order was void because the underlying trial court order was not a direct enough command to be enforced by contempt (and certainly not by incarceration). See Ex parte Brister, 801 S.W.2d 833, 834 (Tex. 1990) (terms must be clear and unambiguous); Ex parte Padron, 565 S.W.2d 921, 921 (Tex. 1978) (orig. proceeding) (incarceration for contempt requires violation of an unequivocal command).
The Court examined the divorce decree and concluded that it did not make clear that the “coarse and offensive language” provision was actually a directive from the court instead of a contract between the parties.
The “coarse and offensive language” provision listed in the body of the divorce decree, but — as the Court read the decree — it was not included within the scope of the permanent injunction or using specific “decretal” language (the Court’s term, not mind). Instead, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that the “coarse and offensive language” provision was only meant to be enforceable as a contract between the parties, not as a formal order of the trial court.
Magness also asserted First Amendment challenges to the order, which her ex-husband contends had been waived because she did not assert those arguments in the trial court. The Texas Supreme Court did not need to reach these constitutional questions because it had already found the contempt order void for independent reasons of Texas law.
Because the Court ruled that the contempt order was void, it granted the writ of habeas corpus.
Take away: The actual holding here is very narrow. If you want a particular term in a divorce decree to be enforceable by contempt, you should ensure it is included as part of a direct command from the trial court — not merely a contract between the divorcing parties.
Interestingly, the Court did not determine whether this “coarse and offensive language” provision would have been unambiguous enough to be enforced if the trial court had more clearly delineated it as a decree of the court rather than a contract. That may have been because of concern about whether the relator waived that argument below.
If you represent someone challenging a contempt order on the ground that it violates the First Amendment or is too vague under Texas law, you would be well-advised to raise that argument in the trial court, if at all possible.