Inherent Contempt and Impeachment

Recently the Good Government Now organization (with which I am loosely affiliated) has been advocating the revival of inherent contempt as a means of compelling executive branch officials to provide information demanded by Congress. As you probably know (if you read this blog), inherent contempt allows either house of Congress to arrest individuals who defy its orders and imprison them until they comply. Under a proposal by my friend and former colleague Mort Rosenberg, the House would adopt a new inherent contempt procedure in which fines, rather than imprisonment, would be the principal sanction to compel executive branch officials to comply with subpoenas and other demands for information.

While I do not object to the use of inherent contempt in the proper circumstances, I have long been skeptical of using it as a means of resolving legislative-executive disputes over information. This is so both for constitutional and practical reasons. The constitutional issues we will get into in more detail in future posts. For now, the important point is that those issues arise primarily in the context of ordinary congressional oversight. The calculus is different in the context of a judicial proceeding such as impeachment. The argument for employing inherent contempt against recalcitrant witnesses, including executive branch officials, in an impeachment proceeding is constitutionally much stronger for reasons I will endeavor to explain in upcoming posts.

The practical problems, on the other hand, are another matter. See Andrew McCanse Wright, Congressional Conflict and Congressional Oversight, 98 Marq. L. Rev. 881, 933 (2104) (“To say the least, it would be impractical and unwise for congressional security forces to attempt to detain executive branch officials and haul them off to the congressional brig, although commentators occasionally call for it.”).  For one thing, there is not actually any “congressional brig,” at least not one suitable for holding anyone for a significant period of time. For another, there is the “specter of interbranch violence,” particularly for detainees that have their own security details. See id. These problems are not ameliorated by the fact that the proceeding involves impeachment rather than oversight.

Arguably, the use of fines could help to address the practical problem. As a general rule, I doubt that Congress has the authority to impose fines as a form of punishment, but I think there may be a way to use them in the context of an impeachment proceeding that would stand up in court. Therefore, if the House is considering formally authorizing an impeachment proceeding, it should seriously consider a provision to authorize the use of inherent contempt, including monetary fines, against those who withhold information from the inquiry. Importantly, however, this authority should be limited to impeachment.

I will lay out the reasons for my position in a series of posts, beginning with some historical background on legislative privilege and contempt.

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