The Texas Supreme Court reversed a contempt finding in a Denton County divorce recently. In In re Coppock, the parties entered into an agreed divorce decree that prohibited using coarse or offensive language in communicating with the opposing spouse. This provision was contained in some general provisions of the decree, but did not include any injunctive language.
The ex-wife was found to have violated that provision 84 times by sending caustic emails to her ex-husband where she made fun of his weight, belittles his finances, mocked his ability in bed, and dismissed his new wife as “trailer trash”. Former Judge Vickie Issacks found the ex-wife in contempt and sentenced her to jail. The sentence required three consecutive 180-day terms, which would be waived if she reported for 4 nights in jail and paid the ex-husband’s attorneys fees.
The Texas Supreme Court held that the contempt order is void because the underlying order did not directly command action sufficient to be enforced by contempt. Further, the Court held the provision of the decree did not clearly state it was an order of the court instead of an agreement of the parties because it did not contain “decretal” language (e.g., “IT IS ORDERED…”) and was not in the injunction section of the decree. As such, the Court found it to be an agreement of the parties and therefore only enforceable as a contract.
Interestingly, the Texas Supreme Court cites to In re Dupree, a case I won on writ of habeas corpus out of the Dallas court of appeals. It is unusual for the Texas Supreme Court to cite to a case as authoritative out of the court of appeals level. This means that the Texas Supreme Court has accepted the Dupree case as authoritative.
The ex-wife also asserted certain First Amendment challenges that the provisions of the decree unlawfully restrained her right of free speech. However, since she did not make those challenges in the trial court, the ex-husband argued those were waived. The Court did not reach the constitutional arguments because it held the contempt order void for other reasons.
So the writ of habeas corpus was granted and the ex-wife was released from confinement.
Note, Texas divorce lawyers utilize similar orders, called the Standing Order in most counties, in virtually every pending divorce in Texas. (Click for Denton County Standing Order, Collin County Standing Order or Dallas County Standing Order.) This case may lessen the enforceability of those provisions, even though the Coppock case dealt with a final order and those frequently are found in temporary orders.