The Supreme Court of Tennessee has vacated the conviction of an attorney for criminal contempt. In State of Tennessee v. Beeler, two attorneys separately represented a husband and a wife in criminal proceedings. The husband’s attorney was cross-examining the defendants’ minor daughter at a suppression hearing in the case. During the questioning, the wife’s attorney asked the husband a question, while the husband’s attorney was still standing at a lectern across the courtroom.
The trial judge noticed the interaction, interrupted the examination, and asked the husband’s attorney if he had given the wife’s attorney permission to speak with his client out of his presence. The attorney responded that he did not. The judge then cited the wife’s attorney for criminal contempt finding that he had willfully misbehaved in the presence of the court and violated the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, which prohibits such communications.
At a hearing to show cause why he should not be convicted, the wife’s attorney explained that he was implicitly authorized to communicate with the husband because that same morning the husband’s attorney had allowed him to speak with the husband alone about the same subject matter. The attorney also explained that on prior occasions, they had communicated with each other’s’ clients both in and out of one another’s presence.
Nevertheless, the trial court found that the attorney’s testimony was not credible, convicted him of criminal contempt, and sentenced him to a fifty dollar fine and ten days in jail, which was subsequently ordered to be served on probation. The attorney appealed the conviction, which the appeals court affirmed. The attorney sought further review from the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction. The court further held that the attorney’s potentially unethical conduct did not constitute “willful misbehavior”, given the parties’ prior conduct. The court therefore vacated the conviction.
Decision: State of Tennessee v. Beeler