Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Daily Read: The Contempt Power of Congress
The practice and the announcement of the White House that it will not cooperate with the House of Representatives Impeachment Inquiry as we discussed here, raises the question of the resources available to Congress to enforce its subpoenas. And as in so many cases about Congressional matters, there is a Congressional Research Service Report for that: Congressional Subpoenas: Enforcing Executive Branch Compliance, updated March 27, 2019.
The Report includes this overview:
Congress currently employs an ad hoc combination of methods to combat non-compliance with subpoenas. The two predominant methods rely on the authority and participation of another branch of government. First, the criminal contempt statute permits a single house of Congress to certify a contempt citation to the executive branch for the criminal prosecution of an individual who has willfully refused to comply with a committee subpoena. Once the contempt citation is received, any later prosecution lies within the control of the executive branch. Second, Congress may try to enforce a subpoena by seeking a civil judgment declaring that the recipient is legally obligated to comply. This process of civil enforcement relies on the help of the courts to enforce congressional demands.
Congress has only rarely resorted to either criminal contempt or civil enforcement to combat non- compliance with subpoenas . . . .
Of special note later in the Report is a discussion of "detention" of executive branch officials:
Although rare, the inherent contempt power has been used to detain executive branch officials, including for non-compliance with a congressional subpoena. During an 1879 investigation into allegations of maladministration by George F. Seward while a consul general in Shanghai, a House committee issued a subpoena to Seward for relevant documents and testimony.254 When Seward—then an ambassador to China—refused to comply, the House passed a resolution holding him in contempt and directing the Sergeant-at-Arms to take him into custody and bring him before the House. Seward was taken into custody and brought before the House, where he was ultimately released while the House considered impeachment articles.
In another example which gave rise to Marshall v. Gordon , the House adopted a contempt resolution directing the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest U.S. Attorney Snowden Marshall for an insulting letter sent to a committee chair. The arrest was then made and quickly challenged in federal court, where ultimately the Supreme Court ordered Marshall released. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed the contempt power generally, but concluded that in Marshall’s case the contempt was invalid as “not intrinsic to the right of the House to preserve the means of discharging its legislative duties.” Notably, the Court was silent on whether Marshall’s status as an executive branch official had any impact on the House’s exercise of the power.
Given these examples, and the Supreme Court’s general statements on the reach of the inherent contempt power, it would appear to be within Congress’s power to use inherent contempt to compel executive branch compliance with congressional subpoenas, at least in certain circumstances. But neither the Seward nor Marshall example involved an assertion of executive privilege, meaning that the Court did not need to consider what, if any, constraints that privilege may impose upon Congress’s exercise of its inherent contempt authority.
Moreover, an attempt by Congress to arrest or detain an executive official may carry other risks. There would appear to be a possibility that, if the Sergeant-at-Arms attempted to arrest an executive official, a standoff might occur with executive branch law enforcement tasked with protecting that official. This concern is also applicable in the event that a judicial marshal enforces a judicial order of contempt against an executive official, and perhaps will always be “attendant in high-stakes separation-of-powers controversies.”
There's a great deal more worth reading in this 45 page Report as what some are calling a "constitutional crisis" unfolds.