ACTUALLY CRIMINAL CONTEMPT MIGHT WORK PRETTY WELL RIGHT ABOUT NOW

I will take the occasion of a tweet by Representative Ted Lieu to make a point so obvious it may have been overlooked. Representative Lieu was responding to a question about why House Democrats have not subpoenaed the administrator of GSA (Emily Murphy, who goes by the adorable twitter handle of @GSAEmily) to ask her why she has not yet ascertained “the apparent successful candidates for the office of President and Vice President” in accordance with the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 (3 U.S.C. § 102 note). Lieu explained:

CONGRESSIONAL SUBPOENAS ARE MEANINGLESS BECAUSE WE CANNOT ENFORCE THEM.

(You can tell he is serious by the all-caps). Lieu goes on to say that GSA would simply ignore a subpoena, and that the House should change its rules to authorize inherent contempt, which would allow the sergeant-at-arms to arrest Murphy or other recalcitrant witnesses and bring them before a committee to testify (and, if they refuse, to try them for contempt before the bar of the House).

Now no one is more concerned than I about the impotence of congressional compulsory process with respect to the executive branch. All options for addressing that problem, including the revival of inherent contempt, should be on table for discussion.

However, the most important thing that the House could do right now to restore respect for its process would be to use the criminal contempt procedure set forth in 2 U.S.C. § 194. Under that provision, when a witness fails to appear, answer questions or produce documents in a congressional investigation, the House or Senate may refer the matter “to the appropriate United States attorney, whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action.”

As we have frequently discussed, this provision is normally of little value with regard to executive branch witnesses because the Justice Department, despite the apparently mandatory language of the law, takes the position that it does not require it to take action when a witness asserts an official privilege at the president’s direction. Of course, ordinarily the Justice Department that makes the decision on prosecution is the same as the one that advised the president with regard to assertion of the privilege in the first place. That circumstance does not obtain today. There will be (at least if my twitter feed is to be believed)  a new administration come January 20, 2021, which may be willing to move forward with congressional contempt prosecutions of executive officials (or former executive officials), at least under certain conditions.

In the case of Murphy, for example, there are no grounds that I am aware of, even under the views previously articulated by OLC, for her to refuse to even appear before a congressional committee to discuss her statutory duties with regard to the transition. If she were to simply ignore a subpoena to appear, as Lieu suggests she would, she would be taking a very big risk that a new U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia (the “appropriate” U.S. attorney in this and almost all contempt cases) would decide to prosecute her. I suspect that she would in fact appear pursuant to a subpoena, but if she doesn’t, the House should certainly refer her for prosecution. (If she shows up but refuses to answer particular questions, we can cross that bridge when we come to it.)

Apart from Murphy, the House should be looking at strong contempt cases which could be referred now to the U.S. attorney. Presumably the current (acting) U.S. attorney will take no action on them, but as far as I know there is no way for him to prevent his successor from doing so. If the incoming Biden Justice Department is willing to prosecute one or more of the most egregious cases of executive contempt, that may go some way to restoring effective deterrence. And if it is not willing to do so, that will tell us something as well.

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