Because the analysis of congressional standing in the Miers case depends heavily on an understanding of the history of legislative privilege, attention must be paid to the case of Reed v. County Commissioners, 277 U.S. 376 (1928). Reed involved a select Senate committee formed in the spring of 1926 to investigate alleged fraudulent and unlawful election practices. After the November 1926 senatorial election in Pennsylvania was contested, the Senate authorized the select committee to take custody of the ballot boxes and to investigate allegations of fraud, illegal expenditures and other irregularities relating to that election. However, when the Congress adjourned sine die on March 4, 1927, the select committee had not yet taken possession of the ballot boxes and the Senate had not voted on a resolution to continue the select committee’s existence after adjournment.
Subsequently, the select committee demanded that county officials in Delaware County, Pennsylvania deliver to it all ballot boxes and certain other election records. The county officials responded that they were under legal obligation to maintain custody of the records in question, and could not deliver them to the select committee in the absence of a court order establishing the select committee’s right to the records. The select committee sought the assistance of the Senate sergeant at arms, who declined to intervene because of questions about the select committee’s authority following adjournment. The select committee then petitioned the federal court for an injunction directing the county officials to turn over the records. To my knowledge, this was the first time that a congressional committee directly sought the assistance of a court.
The District Court Decision
The district court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. It acknowledged the “broad doctrine of the right of the government as parens patriae in promoting the interest of the public, to have the assistance of its courts by injunctive remedy to promote the public interest and prevent injury to public welfare is sustained by ample authority cited by [the select committee]. Reed v. County Commissioners, 21 F.2d 144, 147 (E.D. Pa. 1927). Nevertheless, the court viewed the case before it as different because the select committee’s authority to act after the Senate’s adjournment was at issue. If the question of the select committee’s authority to direct the sergeant at arms had arisen while the Senate was still in session, the court noted, “the question of their authority to act and to have the sergeant at arms comply with their orders, would be determined by the Senate itself.” The court concluded that it lacked the power to make that determination in the Senate’s stead as “the determination of that question is, under the Constitution, conferred upon the Senate alone” and was therefore a legislative, not a judicial, question.
The court had some difficulty in reconciling its conclusion with the established principle, which had been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court earlier that year in McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927), that individuals imprisoned for contempt of Congress were entitled to judicial review through habeas proceedings. This precedent established, as the court recognized, that controversies regarding the exercise of congressional investigatory power are judicially cognizable. However, as the court noted, such cases were distinguishable on the grounds that the process came from the Senate as a whole, not a committee acting on its own. In these cases, any questions regarding the proper interpretation or application of Senate rules would have been resolved by the Senate itself in the course of holding the individual in contempt.
The court, however, seemed not to be entirely satisfied with this distinction. To bolster its conclusion, it pointed to the fact that a writ of habeas corpus is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and that therefore it is a proper judicial function to resolve habeas cases in which there are “questions of life, liberty, or property between the individual and one depriving him of those rights.” This language could be read to suggest that the nature of the action (i.e., a claim for habeas relief by an individual rather than a claim for injunctive relief by a congressional committee), rather than the question presented (the interpretation of ambiguous congressional rules), determines whether the matter is a judicial or a legislative issue.
To the extent that the court was going in this direction, it was mistaken. The fact that the writ of habeas corpus is mentioned in the Constitution has no bearing on whether the writ authorizes judicial review of congressional contempt proceedings. In Britain the courts consistently found that the right of habeas did not extend to individuals imprisoned by Parliament, and American courts could have taken the same view. Moreover, American courts have allowed actions other than habeas, such as false imprisonment suits, to challenge congressional contempt proceedings.
Ultimately, however, the court did not find that congressional committees were barred in all cases from seeking judicial relief in support of investigations. The court left open the possibility that such an action would be permitted where the committee’s authority to act was clear, noting that “[w]hether or not, if a remedy through the courts be open to them, it would be by proceeding in a court having jurisdiction over the person of the sergeant at arms, has not been considered or suggested by either party.” This interesting observation raises the question of whether the court’s ability to resolve the controversy requires jurisdiction over the congressional official with the power to arrest individuals who refuse congressional orders.
If the judicial power extends to a claim for relief by an individual who has been sanctioned by Congress for refusing to provide information, it must also extend to a congressional action alleging that the individual is subject to sanction for this refusal. The only distinction between the two actions is which party is the plaintiff and which is the defendant. This distinction might be significant if the court lacked the power to provide relief to the congressional plaintiff— but this could not be so once the declaratory judgment became an available remedy. It might also be argued that the sergeant at arms is a necessary party to the action, a possibility hinted at by the passage quoted above.
[My next post will analyze the Supreme Court decision]