Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Punishing Contempt, Part 2

As Marty Lederman notes in a comment to my earlier post today, Congress has the power to punish contempts directly, although it hasn't exercised that power in decades. In the 1935 case of Jurney v. McCracken, the Court upheld the Congressional contempt power even when it was exercised after the fact, which is the usual distinction between criminal contempt and civil contempt. So Marty may be technically right that the power is civil in nature, but in substance it's not different from criminal contempt. That in turn suggests that my invocation of the Bill of Attainder Clause is at best technically accurate: Because the contempt is nominally civil, there's no problem under the Bill of Attainder Clause, but the spirit of the Clause is certainly violated by imprisonment after the fact for "civil" contempt of Congress. Could that explain why the practice has fallen into disuse? Or is it possible that notwithstanding the old tradition of Congressional power to prosecute contempts directly, modern understandings of criminal procedure do not permit this practice?

Note that in McCracken, the witness was an attorney who originally refused to comply with a Senate order on grounds of attorney-client privilege. Justice Brandeis justified the upholding of the imprisonment in part on the ground that judicial review would be available. Presumably that would mean that judicial review of a claim of executive privilege would also be available if, say, the Senate were to imprison Karl Rove for contempt without referring the matter to the Justice Department or if the Justice Department declined to prosecute.

From the perspective of separation of powers, direct prosecution by a house of Congress, followed by judicial review, seems the preferable mode of proceeding, as it makes each branch put its money where its mouth is. But it does raise serious due process concerns of the sort addressed by the Bill of Attainder Clause.

7 comments:

Dave said...

Though chances of this happening are probably next to zero (and as a further twist to separation of powers), if Karl Rove was found in contempt for refusing to testify and sentenced to one year in prison, couldn't the president simply pardon him? Politically, he could justify such a pardon as a remedy for a gross injustice enacted upon a civil servant by partisan democrats more interested in scoring political points than seeking truth.

Thorn969 said...

The Bill of Attainder Clause has never been interpreted to preclude Congress or state legislatures from punishing individuals or groups who are in contempt of their authority. Contempt is preferably a preventative and not a punitive act, but is available as either given that the sentence fits the crime, is within the powers of Congress (not violating additional Constitutional protections), and may be appealed to judicial review.

Source: Constitutional Law. Freedom of the Press. Senate Resolution Conditionally Excluding a Newspaper's Reporters from Floor of State Senate Is Unconstitutional. Kovach v. Maddux, 238 F. Supp. 835 (M. D. Tenn. 1965)
Harvard Law Review © 1966 The Harvard Law Review Association

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