As it happens, the decision in Trump v. Mazars USA (D.C. Cir. Oct. 11, 2019) coincides nicely with our discussion of the congressional contempt power. Although Mazars involved the validity of a congressional subpoena, not the exercise of the contempt power per se, the cases we are about to encounter are quite relevant to an analysis of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, particularly with regard to Judge Rao’s remarkable dissent.
Kilbourn v. Thompson
Following its decision in Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821), the Supreme Court next had occasion to consider the contempt power in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1880). Kilbourn arose out of a House special committee’s investigation into the bankruptcy of Jay Cooke & Co., a private firm with large investments in a somewhat shady “real estate pool”; the House resolution establishing the committee recited that the government of the United States was a creditor of the bankrupt firm as the result of “improvident deposits by the Secretary of the Navy” of public moneys at the firm. 103 U.S. at 171. The resolution further recited that the bankruptcy trustee “has recently made a settlement of the interest of the estate . . . to the disadvantage and loss, as it is alleged, of the numerous creditors of said estate, including the government of the United States, and . . . the courts are now powerless by reason of said settlement to afford adequate redress to said creditors.” Id.
Hallet Kilbourn, a real estate broker with knowledge of the private investments in question, was subpoenaed by the House to provide testimony and documents regarding the matter. He declined to do so, denying “the right of the House to investigate private business arbitrarily,” but stated that “if either the committee or the House would assert that the production of his private papers, or the revelation of his private business, would promote any public interest, or if any private individual would assert on oath that the papers asked for would lead to the detection of corruption, he would respond freely to all demands for information or papers.” 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609.
The House then ordered that the Speaker issue an arrest warrant for Kilbourn, pursuant to which the recalcitrant witness was brought before the bar of the House. When he continued to refuse to answer, the House held him in contempt and ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to keep him in custody until such time as he was willing to provide the information demanded. 103 U.S. at 175; 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609.
While Kilbourn was in custody, he was indicted by a federal grand jury under the criminal contempt of Congress statute. This precipitated a conflict between the legislative branch and the executive/judicial branches when the U.S. marshal, with a warrant from the D.C. court, attempted to take custody of Kilbourn from the Sergeant-at-Arms. 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609. The Sergeant-at-Arms refused, and the House actually considered a Blackstonian resolution that would have asserted that the House, not the courts, had the ultimate right to determine the disposition of the prisoner. Id. The House rejected this resolution, however, and authorized the Sergeant-at-Arms to obey the court’s writ of habeas corpus. Id. The court eventually determined that Kilbourn should be released by the Sergeant-at-Arms and taken into custody by the U.S. marshal. Id.
Kilbourn subsequently sued the House for false imprisonment. Perhaps due to the prior tension with the executive branch, the House was represented by private counsel in the case. See Representation of Congress and Congressional Interests in Court: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Separation of Powers of the Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, 94th Cong., 2d sess. 511-12 (1974-75). For whatever reason, the House’s position was much less warmly received when it reached the Supreme Court than it had been in Anderson.
While the Anderson Court embraced the key arguments of the “pro-contempt” side of congressional debates (particularly the argument that the contempt power was an absolute necessity to protect the functioning of Congress), the Kilbourn Court adopts many of the principal arguments of congressional opponents of contempt. It begins with the observation that Congress’s powers are “dependent solely on the Constitution,” “either expressly or by fair implication.” 103 U.S. at 182. As no express power to punish contempts is granted, “advocates of this power have, therefore, resorted to an implication of its existence founded on two principal arguments . . . (1) its exercise by the House of Commons of England, from which country we, it is said, have derived our system of parliamentary law, and (2) the necessity of such a power to enable the two Houses of Congress to perform the duties and exercise the power the Constitution has conferred on them.” Id. at 182-83. Continue reading “Kilbourn and Chapman and Rao. Oh my.”