Legal Memorandum: Distinction between Civil and Criminal Contempt

Issue: What is the distinction between civil and criminal contempt in the Third Circuit?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Contempt; Civil and criminal
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 512 U.S. 821; 47 F.3d 1311
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 03/01/2007

The courts have provided substantial wisdom regarding the issue of distinguishing civil from criminal contempt.  “The purpose of civil contempt is to coerce the person to do what he is supposed to do and is thus remedial in nature.”  Gov’t of the V.I. v. Santiago, 937 F. Supp. 1157, 1162 (D.V.I. 1996).  Moreover, “proceedings for civil contempt are between the original parties and are instituted and tried as part of the main cause.”  Id. at 1162.  In contrast, criminal contempt proceedings are between the public and the contemnor.  Id. *FN1

Civil contempt reflects two purposes—one compensatory, and one coercive.  Harris v. City of Philadelphia, 47 F.3d 1311, 1328 (3d Cir. 1995).  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court have made clear that the trial court has authority to enter broad compensatory awards for contempt by way of civil proceedings.  Id. at 1328 n.16 (quoting Int’l Union, United Mine Workers v. Bagwell, 512 U.S. 821 (1994)).  Even if sanctions have a coercive effect, they also “aid the complainant by ensuring that the contemnor adheres to the court’s order.”  Id.

Importantly, the question whether a contempt is civil or criminal depends on the character and purpose of the sanction.  Harris, 47 F.3d at 1329.  “[T]he key distinction between civil and criminal contempt lies in the court’s purpose.  Civil contempt sanctions are intended to coerce or compensate; criminal contempt sanctions to punish.  ‘Criminal contempt, more specifically, is […]

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