Criminal vs. Civil Contempt
The Washington Post reports today that Judith Miller may be charged with criminal contempt which would lengthen her jail stay. This has been reported several times before, but Atrios asks a good question: What's the difference between criminal contempt and civil contempt?
In a nutshell, civil contempt is a coercive measure - it is used to try and get the person to talk. If Judith Miller were to change her mind and testify while jailed for civil contempt, she would be considered to have purged herself of the contempt.
Criminal contempt is a punitive measure, used when it is clear that the person is not going to talk. It's meant to punish someone for violating a court order, to vindicate the dignity of the court and to deter others from doing so.
Second, civil contempt has a penalty limit in the grand jury context: the life of the grand jury (or any successive grand jury) investigating the matter. Grand juries serve for 18 months.
Believe it or not, a criminal contempt charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. There is no maximum penalty set by the statute, which makes any sentence up to life a possibility. However, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines apply to criminal contempt, and while the offense does not have its own guideline penalty, the directions are to use the penalty for the crime that is most analagous to it. I think in Miller's case, it would be the guideline for obstruction of justice.
The U.S. Attorney's Manual describes the difference this way:
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