My prior post covered the facts of H. Snowden Marshall’s contempt case. Today we will address the legal issues.
The District Court Decision
The case was heard initially by Judge Learned Hand, who rejected Marshall’s challenge to the contempt proceedings. Judge Hand’s opinion summarizes the state of the law of contempt at that time. See United States ex rel. Marshall v. Gordon, 235 F. 422 (S.D.N.Y. 1916). In Hand’s view, the case presented three issues: (1) was the House engaged upon a “constitutional duty;” (2) did the House have a power of contempt in connection with that constitutional duty; and (3) did that power extend beyond testimonial compulsion to reach the type of dignitary harms of which Marshall was accused. Id. at 429.
The first question was easy, according to Judge Hand. See id. (“That the House was in fact engaged in a constitutional inquiry admits of no doubt.”). The House resolution directing the judiciary committee to investigate Marshall “was aimed at [his] impeachment,” and “the subcommittee was charged with duties ancillary to that inquiry.” Id. Thus, the House was engaged in the constitutional duty of impeachment (a proposition that seems to have been basically uncontested).
The second question was also straightforward given the answer to the first. Kilbourn had left “no question” that the House had a contempt power when it was engaged in an impeachment inquiry. Id.
The third question was the most difficult. Marshall argued that, notwithstanding dicta in Kilbourn and other cases, the House’s function in impeachment was not truly judicial and therefore it was not entitled to exercise the same powers as a court. He argued that the House’s function in impeachment was more akin to that of a grand jury or a prosecutor than a court. Id.
Judge Hand disagreed on the first part of this argument, calling it “too clear for question” that the House’s function in impeachment is judicial in nature. Id. However, he acknowledged that it was a closer issue whether the House should have “the powers of a court whenever it acts judicially.” Id. Ultimately, though, he concluded that “there is both reason and precedent for the position that the House, while deliberating upon articles of impeachment, has jurisdiction to determine whether a publication is a contumacious assault upon its freedom of action. Id. at 432.
Once it was determined that the matter fell within the House’s jurisdiction, the court’s role was at an end. The court had no power to review the merits of the House’s decision that Marshall’s letter should be treated as a contempt. Hand acknowledged that this created the potential for abuse, but opined that this potential was no greater for the House than for a court or any other government official entrusted with such power. The House’s power, moreover, was limited to the period during which an impeachment proceeding was pending. Id.
Accordingly, the district court ruled for the House. Marshall then appealed to the Supreme Court, which took a different view of the matter. Continue reading “Marshall v. Gordon and its Significance”