On Debtor’s Prison

A habeas corpus case arising out of an underlying divorce proceeding helps to illustrate the limits of a court’s authority to imprison a litigant for contempt. The trial court ordered the wife to pay her former husband $40,000 secured by a lien on a residence awarded to her in the divorce, to be paid six months after the decree. After that date came and went without payment, the husband moved for contempt, and the trial court sentenced her to confinement in the Hunt County jail until she tendered payment. The Court of Appeals ordered her to be released, citing the Texas Constitution’s provision that “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.” Tex. Const. art I, §18. Although the trial court could have jailed the wife for failing to comply with a court order to turn over specified property or funds (e.g., “the $40,000 in Wife’s savings account”), that authority did not extend to the failure to pay a pure debt to the other spouse. The Court therefore granted habeas corpus and ordered that the wife be unconditionally released.

In re Kinney, No. 05-14-00159-CV