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Judge Bates on Inherent Contempt

The court rejected the Justice Department’s threshold arguments on standing and cause of action.  Based on the court’s remarks at the oral argument, this does not come as a surprise.  For reasons that I have discussed before, the court was not impressed with the Justice Department’s attempt to disavow the 1980s OLC memos which clearly stated that civil enforcement, not inherent contempt, was the appropriate and preferred method for enforcing congressional subpoenas against the executive.  

 The court’s opinion has several devastating passages on the illogic of the executive branch’s current position:

As noted above, one power that Congress has at its disposal is inherent contempt. Following a citation for congressional contempt, Congress could dispatch the Sergeant-at-Arms to detain Ms. Miers and Mr. Bolten in preparation for a trial before Congress. See Morton Rosenberg, Cong. Research Serv., Congress’s Contempt Power: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure, No. 34-097, at 15 (2008), available at http://www.au.af.mil/au/awv/awcgate/crs/rl34097.pdf. In response to such action, both sides here appear to agree (see Tr. at 85) that Ms. Miers and Mr. Bolten would likely file a writ of habeas corpus with this Court to challenge the legality of their detention, raising the central issue of the scope and nature of Congress’s subpoena power — precisely the issue presented by the instant action. By invoking the [Declaratory Judgment Act] to gain anticipatory review of that same question, the Committee can obtain judicial resolution regarding its subpoena power without the unseemly scenario of the arrest and detention of high-ranking executive branch officials, which would carry the possibility of precipitating a serious constitutional crisis. That would seem to be

just the sort of process sanctioned by the DJA.

* * *

Still, the Executive takes the Committee to task for failing to utilize its inherent contempt authority. But there are serious problems presented by the prospect of inherent contempt, not the least of which is that the Executive is attempting to have it both ways on this point. To begin with, prosecution pursuant to inherent contempt is a method of “inflicting punishment on an individual who failed” to comply with a subpoena. See Olson OLC Opinion at 137. As OLC has recognized, a civil action, by contrast, is directed towards “obtaining any unprivileged documents necessary to assist [Congress’s] lawmaking function.” Id. Put another way, the two remedies serve different purposes, although it is true that threatening prosecution under inherent contempt may lead to the production of documents. But unlike a civil action for subpoena enforcement, that is not the primary goal of inherent contempt. Second, imprisoning current (and even former) senior presidential advisors and prosecuting them before the House would only exacerbate the acrimony between the two branches and would present a grave risk of precipitating a constitutional crisis. Indeed, one can easily imagine a stand-off between the Sergeant-at-Arms and executive branch law enforcement officials concerning taking Mr. Bolten into custody and detaining him. See Cooper OLC Opinion at 86 (“[I]t seems most unlikely that Congress could dispatch the Sergeant at-Arms to arrest and imprison an Executive Branch official who claimed executive privilege.”). Such unseemly, provocative clashes should be avoided, and there is no need to run the risk of such mischief when a civil action can resolve the same issues in an orderly fashion. Third, even if the Committee did exercise inherent contempt, the disputed issue would in all likelihood end up before this Court, just by a different vehicle — a writ of habeas corpus brought by Ms. Miers and Mr. Bolten. In either event there would be judicial resolution of the underlying issue.

Indeed this administration, along with previous executive administrations, has observed that inherent contempt is not available for use against senior executive branch officials who claim executive privilege. In this very case, the Executive has questioned “whether [inherent contempt] would even countenance the arrest of the President or his closest aides for refusing to testify or provide privileged documents . . . at the President’s direction.” See Defs.’ Reply at 22. The Executive has described that possibility as a “dubious proposition.” Id. Previous administrations have gone even further. The Olson OLC Opinion explained that “the same reasoning that suggests that the [criminal contempt] statute could not constitutionally be applied against a Presidential assertion of privilege applies to Congress’ inherent contempt powers as well.” See Olson OLC Opinion at 140 n. 42. The Cooper OLC Opinion concurred: the inherent contempt alternative “may well be foreclosed by advice previously rendered by this Office.” See Cooper OLC Opinion at 83. Thus, there are strong reasons to doubt the viability of Congress’s inherent contempt authority vis-a-vis senior executive officials. To be sure, the executive branch’s opinion is not dispositive on this question, and the Court need not decide the issue. At the very least, however, the Executive cannot simultaneously question the sufficiency and availability of an alternative remedy but nevertheless insist that the Committee must attempt to “exhaust” it before a civil cause of action is available.

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