Skip to content
 

The Supreme Court Decision in Reed

             After the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, the select committee petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, emphasizing that the questions presented “are of such importance to the proper exercise by the Senate of the United States of its separate constitutional powers, that the petitioners, as a committee of the Senate, deem it their duty to present, for the first time in the history of this Government, on behalf of the Senate and in pursuance of the powers vested in them by the Senate, a petition to this Court for writ of certiorari in order to maintain and preserve the coordinate authority of the Senate and the Legislative branch of the Government.”

The first question that the select committee presented to the Court was “whether there is presented a case or controversy of which the Federal courts may under the Constitution be vested by the Congress with jurisdiction to determine.” The select committee argued that there was a “real conflict between the claims of these parties” with “each side claim[ing] to be entitled to the present possession of . . . the ballot boxes and election papers.” The select committee contended that the issue of entitlement to this evidence was a proper judicial question, and that the issue of its authority to act was merely an incidental question that the court could decide in the course of resolving the case.

The select committee’s argument sidesteps the central point of the district court’s decision, namely that the select committee’s authority to act should be determined by the Senate itself, not by the court. The district court’s ruling reflected a principle that would be explicitly adopted by the D.C. Circuit many years later: courts may not take it upon themselves to interpret ambiguous congressional rules because the Constitution gives each House the authority to determine its own rules.

By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, however, the Senate had already passed a resolution that explicitly provided that the select committee’s authority had continued after the March 4, 1927 adjournment, and reaffirmed the select committee’s continuing authority to act under Senate rules. Perhaps because this action mooted the district court’s reason for dismissing the case, the Supreme Court did not address the reasoning of the court below. The Court also did not directly address the question, raised by the select committee, of whether there was presented a “case or controversy” over which the federal courts could constitutionally exercise jurisdiction.

Instead, the Court issued a brief opinion, in which it ruled that the district court lacked jurisdiction because the select committee was not “authorized by law to sue,” as required by the jurisdictional statute under which it was proceeding. The Court noted that the “suit cannot be maintained unless the committee or its members were authorized to sue” by Senate resolutions, “even if it be assumed that the Senate alone may give that authority.” The resolutions in question, however, gave no such express authority.

The resolutions provided that the select committee could “do such other acts as may be necessary in the matter of said investigation.” However, the Court rejected the suggestion that this language provided implied authority to sue. It cited the custom of both the Senate and the House to rely on their own powers to compel the attendance of witnesses and production of evidence. It also noted that Congress had enacted the congressional contempt statute (providing for criminal prosecution of those who refuse information demanded by congressional committees) to facilitate its investigations. These were the traditional methods of enforcing congressional demands for information, and “[i]n the absence of some definite indication of that purpose, the Senate may reasonably be held to have intended to depart from its established usage.”

Nowhere did the Court suggest that there was any constitutional barrier to prevent a congressional committee from seeking judicial assistance. Indeed, the Court’s opinion implicitly invited Congress to authorize its committees to sue if it were so inclined, an invitation that caused the Senate, shortly after the Reed decision was issued, to pass a rule authorizing all of its committees to sue.

Leave a Reply