Ex parte Slavin is the touchstone Texas case for contempt petitions. Its name is a byword for the technical requirements a contempt petitioner must meet to establish a right to relief by contempt.
Concisely stated, Slavin stands for the proposition that the underlying decree must “spell out the details of compliance in clear, specific and unambiguous terms.” 412 S.W.2d 43, 44 (Tex. 1967). Where a decree is subject to more than one reasonable construction “consistent with innocence,” the decree cannot be enforced by contempt.
In my own practice, I had reason to read this foundational case recently and was struck by how short it is–only two pages. I also found myself thinking about its propositions as I worked on a response to a petition for writ of mandamus. One of the things that has long fascinated me about law is the use of language. Indeed, in my personal statement written for my law school applications, I asserted that lawyers are the only people outside of poets and philosophers who are paid (usually better than poets and philosophers) to fret over the careful gradients and shades of meaning of words. For example, what does “due process” mean? I am sure I thought this was a rather deep thought at the time.
But I have a passion for words and found myself thinking about Slavin‘s imperative. I wondered if it was even possible to follow it strictly. Surely a creative mind–such as that of a wily lawyer or an ex-spouse determined to thwart the purposes of a decree–can construct reasonable alternatives for practically any language?
Often cited in conjunction with Slavin is the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in Ex parte Chambers: “Only the existence of reasonable alternative constructions will prevent enforcement of the order. The order need not be full of superfluous terms and specifications adequate to counter any flight of fancy a contemnor may imagine in order to declare it vague.” Ex parte Chambers, 898 S.W.2d 257, 260 (Tex. 1995) (orig. proceeding) (citations omitted).
But what is a reasonable alternative construction? In what circumstances will a court decide a construction is unreasonable? In Slavin, the alternative construction was only reasonable when the petitioner read the decree in conjunction with a statute regarding payment of support after a child reaches the age of majority. Indeed, the four corners of the decree in Slavin were clear. Eugene Slavin was ordered to pay child support of $150/month “until said children attain the age of eighteen years.” A plain reading of this language would require Mr. Slavin to pay $150/month until all of the children were 18. But the law at the time did not permit child support be ordered after a child reached majority. Thus, in Slavin, the alternative reasonable construction tacitly included a knowledge of the relevant statutes. To my mind, there is some tension between this proposition–“An alternative reasonable construction can rely upon extrinsic statutes.”–and Slavin‘s oft-cited dictates that the language of the decree, in and of itself, must be clear and unambiguous. Does this corollary hold true for the subsequent case law?
My goal is to read and blog about all 168 Texas cases available on Casemaker which cite Slavin, along with other related issues. In doing so, I hope to develop a deeper understanding of the repercussions Slavin has had on Texas contempt proceedings, particularly in my primary area of practice: family law.