My second selection is the curious case of Chadwick v. Janecka. Chadwick arose from a bitter state court divorce, commenced in 1992, between Beatty Chadwick and his estranged wife Barbara. Their marital estate included $2.5 million in assets under Beatty’s control and, after Barbara filed for divorce, Beatty offshored those assets to a Gibraltar account. Beatty claimed he transferred the funds to repay a foreign debt, but Barbara alleged that the transfers were a sham to defraud her of an equitable distribution. In 1995, Beatty fled the jurisdiction, but was apprehended shortly thereafter. The state court ordered him detained for civil contempt until he complied with the court’s order to repatriate his assets. Beatty argued that compliance was impossible because he no longer owned the assets, but the state court did not believe him.1 Beatty then filed an emergency motion in federal court against the state trial court and local sheriff in which he sought his release from the county jail.2 That matter was assigned to Judge Shapiro, who initially abstained from intervening in the state court divorce proceeding under Younger v. Harris.3 Beatty therefore began serving what would become the longest term of incarceration for civil contempt in U.S. history.
Claiming that his indefinite detention without a criminal charge violated his constitutional right to due process, Beatty went on to file a flurry of serial habeas petitions: six in state and five in federal court. His case arrived again before Judge Shapiro on the terminal (fifth) federal petition in 2000. There, Beatty argued that the permissible purpose for holding a party in civil contempt is to exact compliance with a court order, not to punish the party. Thus, Beatty argued that, because the divorce court’s contempt order failed to compel compliance, his continued detention was unlawful.4
Judge Shapiro found herself presiding over what appeared to be a convincing legal argument made by a highly unsympathetic inmate seeking release from jail. How could a man be imprisoned indefinitely for years without an adjudication of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? One the one hand, the state courts had repeatedly found that Beatty was hiding assets offshore and, if true, he was committing a fraud on his wife and the court to avoid dividing marital assets equitably in divorce.5 On the other hand, he had already served more time for civil contempt than he likely would have served for theft of the same assets. His obduracy suggested either that he didn’t have the money or his will to keep it was as ironclad as the bars of his jail cell.
Knowing full-well the high risk of reversal in granting habeas relief,6 and disbelieving his impossibility defense, Judge Shapiro nonetheless ruled in Beatty’s favor.7 She concluded that continued detention was futile because he would not bend to the state court’s power:
“After what is now nearly seven years’ incarceration for failure to comply, there is a serious question whether confinement is still serving a coercive purpose. After this significant period of time, there exists more than Chadwick’s mere assertion that further confinement will not coerce compliance.”8
Consider for a moment how difficult it must have been for someone with Judge Shapiro’s convictions to write this statement. Here was an early, trailblazing feminist and lifelong believer in the power of courts to coerce righteous conduct (as Harris shows!) letting a fraudster free because she thought it was the right thing to do.9
Barbara, alongside the state, appealed the grant of habeas relief and, although not unforeseen, the Court of Appeals reversed Judge Shapiro’s order that paved the way for Beatty’s release. Writing for the appellate panel, then-Circuit Judge (now Supreme Court Justice) Samuel Alito found that the exactingly standard for habeas relief could not be satisfied by establishing that Beatty had “no substantial likelihood” of complying.The Third Circuit noted that, in International Union v. Bagwell, the Supreme Court “seem[ed] to permit a contemnor who has the ability to comply with the underlying court order to be confined until he or she complies.” The panel therefore concluded that, “if this reading is correct, Bagwell directly contradicts the decision of the District Court in the present case.” Thus, after winning in the district court, Beatty had lost on appeal and went on to serve another seven years in jail. Notably, although the Third Circuit reversed, it did so with great apparent appreciation for Judge Shapiro’s meticulous work on the case below.
For any self-respecting trial judge, reversal on appeal is typically a poignant moment of professional disappointment. This was especially true of Judge Shapiro, who took enormous pride in the painstaking quality of her opinions, which remain widely admired for their logical coherence and exceptional clarity. I selected this case from the thousands of Shapiro’s opinions, not to highlight a moment of defeat, but because it illustrates her elegant view of the Constitution as supremely above the fray of rough justice. Beatty’s position was repeatedly discredited by the state court and surely he did not deserve to be rewarded with habeas relief for performing a legal stunt to defraud his wife of marital assets. Had Beatty been charged with a criminal offense and sentenced to imprisonment following a lawful conviction, we have no doubt that Judge Shapiro would have decided that case differently. But Beatty was not charged with any crime. Thus, lurking in the ether of Judge Shapiro’s opinion is a profound but simple notion of constitutional due process: the state’s power to detain a person indefinitely in the absence of a criminal charge cannot be justified by the detainee’s conduct, no matter how unsavory or distasteful, without first obtaining a lawful conviction.
Chadwick also exemplifies the enduring wisdom of Judge Shapiro’s legal instincts, even though her uncanny foresight did not become evident until much later. As it turns out, Judge Shapiro was right all along: the state’s indefinite detention of Beatty Chadwick was not an effective sanction to coerce him into compliance. In 2009, another seven years after the Third Circuit ruled that Beatty could be detained indefinitely, and after he had achieved the distinction of setting a record for civil contempt detention in the United States, the Pennsylvania state court finally released Beatty for precisely the same reasons that Judge Shapiro articulated in 2002.10 It held that Beatty had the ability to comply with the order to repatriate his assets, but the sanction had lost its coercive effect and, consequently, his continued detention had become punitive.
It also seems that Judge Shapiro’s skepticism of Beatty’s story about the missing offshore assets was well-founded. In 2010, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Beatty had created an online dating profile in which he described himself as an “athletic and toned” bachelor with expensive taste that included subscriptions to the orchestra, ballet, opera, and theater, and a passion for European travel and wine tasting.11 Beatty might have added to his profile: here’s a man who can hold a grudge!