Sunday, July 22, 2007

Contempt of Congress

From Wikipedia:

Congressional rules empower all its standing committees with the authority to compel witnesses to produce testimony and documents for subjects under its jurisdiction. Committee rules may provide for the full Committee to issue a subpoena, or permit subcommittees or the Chairman (acting alone or with the ranking member) to issue subpoenas.

As announced in Wilkinson v. United States, 365 U.S. 399 (1961), the Congressional committee must meet three requirements for its subpoenas to be "legally sufficient." First, the committee investigation of the broad subject area must be authorized by its Chamber; second, the investigation must pursue "a valid legislative purpose" but does not need to involve legislation and does not need to specify the ultimate intent of Congress; and third, the specific inquiries must be pertinent to the subject matter area which have been authorized for investigation.

The Court held in Eastland v. United States Servicemen's Fund, 421 U.S. 491 (1975) that Congressional subpoenas are within the scope of the Speech and Debate clause which provides "an absolute bar to judicial interference" with such compulsory process. Under that ruling, Courts generally do not hear motions to quash Congressional subpoenas; even when executive branch officials refuse to comply, the Courts tend to rule that such matters are "political questions" unsuitable for judicial remedy.


Following the refusal of a witness to produce documents or to testify, the Committee is entitled to report a resolution of contempt to its parent chamber. A Committee may also cite a person for contempt but not immediately report the resolution to the floor. In the case of subcommittees, they report the resolution of contempt to the full Committee, which then has the option of rejecting it, accepting it but not reporting it to the floor, or accepting it and reporting it to the floor of the chamber for action. On the floor of the House or the Senate, the reported resolution is considered privileged and, if the resolution of contempt is passed, the chamber has several options to enforce its mandate.

Inherent contempt

Under this process, the procedure for holding a person in contempt involves only the chamber concerned. Following a contempt citation, the person cited for contempt is arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms for the House or Senate, brought to the floor of the chamber, held to answer charges by the presiding officer, and then subject to punishment that the House may dictate (usually imprisonment for punishment reasons, imprisonment for coercive effect, or release from the contempt citation.)

Concerned with the time-consuming nature of a contempt proceeding and the inability to extend punishment further than the session of the Congress concerned (under Supreme Court rulings), Congress created a statutory process in 1857. While Congress retains its "inherent contempt" authority and may exercise it at any time, this inherent contempt process was last used by the Senate in 1934, in a Senate investigation of airlines and the U.S. Postmaster. After a one-week trial on the Senate floor (presided by the Vice-President of the United States, acting as Senate President), a lawyer who had allowed clients to rip up subpoenaed documents, William P. MacCracken, a lawyer and former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 days imprisonment. [1]

MacCracken had filed a petition of Habeas Corpus in federal courts to overturn his arrest, but after litigation, the US Supreme Court ruled that Congress had acted constitutionally, and denied the petition in the case Jurney v. MacCracken, 294 U.S. 125 (1935). [2][3]

Presidential pardons appear not apply to civil contempt procedures like the above, since it is not an "offense against the United States" or an offense against "the dignity of public authority." [4]

And from
Contempt of Congress is any improper attempt to obstruct the legislative process, usually by a refusal to provide information that Congress has requested. The contempt power is critical to Congress's ability to investigate the activities of the executive branch or any issue about which it is considering enacting legislation. Congress can use contempt citations against witnesses who refuse to testify or to produce required evidence. Those found guilty of contempt of Congress may go to prison.

There are three methods of prosecuting for contempt of Congress. First, Congress can try contempt cases itself. In 1848 and 1871 the Senate did just that, imprisoning newspaper reporters in the Capitol for not revealing the source of the Senate secrets they had published. Congress can also turn contempt cases over to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. However, juries have often acquitted individuals charged with contempt, especially if it appears that the congressional committee abused its power. For example, between 1950 and 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee issued 133 contempt citations, but only nine people were convicted. Finally, the Senate or House can also file civil charges of contempt. Using this procedure, a federal judge determines whether a question asked by Congress was legitimate. If the judge orders a witness to answer and the witness refuses, then the witness would be in contempt of court and could be fined or imprisoned.
And Capitol Questions:
Contempt of Congress is initiated by a resolution reported from the affected congressional committee which can cite any individual for contempt. The resolution must then be adopted by the House or Senate. If the relevant chamber adopts the contempt resolution recommended by one of its committees, the matter is referred to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. The U.S. Attorney may call in a grand jury to decide whether or not to indict and prosecute. If prosecuted by the courts and found guilty of contempt, the punishment is presently set at up to one year in prison and/or up to $1,000 in fines.

Contempt resolutions have most often been issued in two categories: (1) for reasons of refusing to testify or failing to provide Congress with requested documents or answers, and (2) bribing or libeling a Member of Congress. Contempt citations are limited to matters which relate to legislative purposes and which fall within the affected committee's established jurisdiction.

Several Supreme Court decisions have upheld the contempt authority of Congress, most notably Anderson v. Dunn, decided in 1821. Congress sets the procedures and punishment for contempt by statute. The current contempt statute (2 USC 192) was adopted in 1857, and has been amended several times over the years. This statute also limits the issuance of contempt citations to matters which relate to legislative purposes and which fall within the affected committee's established jurisdiction as delegated to it by the full House or Senate.

Okay! We're waiting!

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