Updated: Mort Rosenberg’s response follows
On a snowy day, what could be better than snuggling up with some 1950s Supreme Court cases and getting deep into the technicalities of congressional contempt procedure? If your answer is “just about anything,” you would not have enjoyed John Filamor’s going-away party.
As it happens, I had a reason for doing this. My friend and congressional legal expert extraordinaire Mort Rosenberg, with some assistance from former House Counsel Stan Brand, wrote this memo last week to Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR). The memo concludes, based on Supreme Court precedent, that Lois Lerner cannot be held in contempt for her refusal to answer questions at a recent COGR hearing, explaining that “at no stage in this proceeding did the witness receive the clear rejections of her constitutional objections and direct demand for answers nor was it made unequivocally certain that her failure to respond would result in a criminal contempt prosecution.”
For the reasons set forth below, I don’t think the Supreme Court cases relied on by Rosenberg and Brand support their conclusion. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that Lerner could escape criminal conviction on the grounds set forth in their memo. Moreover, as far as I can tell there is no basis for the suggestion that Lerner would be able to successfully defend a civil suit on this basis.
Perhaps more importantly, I do not think it appropriate for Representative Cummings to endorse this position. Lerner has skilled defense counsel who is more than capable of deciding whether it is in her interest to raise this hyper-technical defense should she be charged with criminal contempt. There are legitimate institutional reasons why Cummings might object to holding Lerner in contempt, but this is not one of them.