Representative Forsyth on Impeachment and the Contempt Power

As part of my series on impeachment and the contempt power, I have been reading the 1818 House debate on the contempt proceeding against Colonel John Anderson. I will have more to say on this subject presently, but today I want to flag an argument made by Representative Forsyth, who was one of the leading figures in the debate. The question before the House was whether it possessed the power to punish Anderson, who had attempted to bribe a member of the House. Forsyth argued strongly that the House did indeed possess this power.

In citing these remarks, it is important to emphasize that Anderson’s case had nothing whatsoever to do with impeachment or with any alleged misconduct by the president or any executive branch officer. Rather, Forsyth discusses impeachment (as did several others on his side of the argument) as evidence that the Constitution necessarily contemplated that the House could exercise the contempt power:

Judging that the time might arrive when a President would conspire with corrupt and ambitious men, of his own country or of a foreign nation, to change his temporary and limited authority to a permanent and despotic power, [the framers] supposed a sufficient barrier was erected to defeat such conspiracy, by giving to this House the power of impeachment, and the Senate the authority to judge and punish the offender, when brought to the bar by the charges of the people, and convicted by proper evidence. Has it not occurred to the members of this House, especially those [who argued the House lacked the power to punish for contempt], that the efficacy of this provision resides wholly in the power of the House and Senate, respectively, to issue process of attachment for contempt?

31 Annals of Congress 745 (emphasis added). Again, Forsyth is advancing a hypothetical that illustrates most clearly, in his view, that the House may punish for contempt. He continues:

A President forms treasonable designs against the United States. By one those fortunate events which, in the order of Providence, usually occurs to defeat the machinations of guilt, a partial discovery of the design is made, and an inquiry is instituted; you ascertain the sources from which which accurate and certain information is to be procured. How are you to compel the production of the treasonable correspondence in their custody? By attachment for contempt.

Id. (emphasis added). Forsyth had a vivid imagination, did he not?

But he doesn’t stop there. He anticipates the argument that a law could be passed making it a crime to withhold information from Congress (as it would be about 40 years later). Such a law would be inadequate:

Sir, it is vain to say we can provide by law for such an occurrence. Such provision is impossible. You make laws, but these laws are nugatory. You may provide penalties, but to inflict them must be judicial process, trial, conviction and sentence. The inevitable delay is ruinous to the country, and gives to the traitors the time to consummate their horrible designs. But even the guilty witness, the contemner of your authority, escapes the punishment provided by your law. The same Constitution under which you defined his offense, and annexed an appropriate punishment, gives to the President, for whom he commits it, the power of pardoning the offender. You have the consolation to know that he is convicted, and he has the consolation of laughing at an impotent branch of the Legislature, called, in derision, the Grand Inquest of the Nation!

Id. (emphasis added).

Note that Forsyth anticipated that a statutory contempt procedure would be inadequate because it would take too long and because the president would in any event pardon the guilty witness who was acting on his behalf. But he did not anticipate that the president could block prosecution in the first place.

Even Forsyth could not imagine the Office of Legal Counsel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.