Contempt and Charles Pinckney

Whether Congress (or, more precisely, each house of Congress) has the power to punish nonmembers is a question not directly addressed by the Constitution. See Josh Chafetz, Congress’s Constitution: Legislative Authority and the Separation of Powers 171 (2017) (“Unlike the congressional houses’ authority to punish their members . . ., their authority to punish nonmembers has no explicit textual basis in the federal Constitution.”); Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few: Legislative Privilege and Democratic Norms in the British and American Constitutions 212 (2007) (“The Houses’ power to punish non-Members for contempt rests upon shakier footing than their power to punish Members.”). Like whether a sitting president can be indicted or prosecuted, the existence (and scope) of the congressional contempt power was understood to be an open question from the earliest days of the Republic. But while the Supreme Court has never had occasion to address the former question, it has seemingly resolved the latter, having repeatedly upheld the exercise of the contempt power against nonmembers.

I say “seemingly” because, as we shall see, there is reason to believe the executive branch would relitigate this fundamental issue should the necessity arise. Therefore, in today’s post I will lay out the background of the original debate about the contempt power through the story of Charles Pinckney, who was (among other things) a delegate from South Carolina to the Philadelphia Convention. I do so not only because it is an interesting and untold (or at least undertold) story, but because it may very well play a significant role in any future litigation over the validity of the contempt power. For a foretaste of this argument, see Professor Michael McConnell’s claim in a recent Fox News interview that the Convention “voted down” Pinckney’s proposal to give Congress the contempt power. (This claim is not exactly accurate, as the Convention did not actually take a vote on the proposal, but it is close enough for government work.) Continue reading “Contempt and Charles Pinckney”