Disregard Court Orders, Be Held in Contempt and Go To Jail

The New York Times spotlights Justice Robert A. Ross, a matrimonial judge on Long Island. Justice Ross has apparently earned a reputation for enforcing court orders and judgments by holding recalcitrant litigants in contempt of court and imprisoning them.

Too often, when a party prevails in a divorce action, winning a judgment against their spouse, the victory is pyrrhic.   The “losing” spouse will not only refuse to honor the judgment, but will deliberately frustrate enforcement.

Last February, the Matrimonial Commission, a task force convened by the New York State court system, issued a report that called, among other things, for stricter enforcement of divorce-court decrees. The report said that in two years of hearings around the state, dozens of the 100 or so witnesses told of waiting years for orders to be issued, only to find themselves waiting months and years more for them to be obeyed.

“After people have gone through the time and money and exasperation, and they get an order that is not enforced, it’s an injustice,” said Sondra Miller, a recently retired appellate judge who was the commission’s chairwoman. “There were many, many, many complaints about this; that there is a lack of enforcement, a need for sanctions. And jail is certainly a sanction available to the court.”

Sentencing someone to jail for contempt of court was always an option, but one of last resort.

It is a drastic remedy,” [Justice Ross] said. “But what is to be done when the law is not being complied with? There is an alarming frequency of contempt.” Judge Ross declined to discuss any current case. . . .but said that he would jail only someone who “makes a conscious decision not to comply with a court order.”

Maxine Last, a Long Island divorce lawyer who has struggled for years with cases that drag on for lack of enforcement, said of Judge Ross: “I wish there were many more like him,” adding that besides jail, “unfortunately, there is no incentive for the parties to comply.

Certainly, the “losing” spouse must make a decision, obey court order or lose your freedom. However, as one jailed husband pointed out: “At least while I’m here [in jail], everything’s on hold,” he said, waving a thin arm under the cold, fluorescent light. “She’s not getting richer off me.”

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