Contempt power of Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Power of Congress to punish those persons who refuse to cooperate in its investigations by jailing them.

In Anderson v. Dunn[case]Anderson v. Dunn[Anderson v. Dunn] (1821), the Supreme Court recognized the inherent contempt power of Congress. The power included the ability of the House of Representatives and the Senate to punish contempt, or failure to cooperate with an investigation, by jailing the offender. Congressional power of investigationThe Court limited the contempt power by specifying that imprisonment could not extend beyond the adjournment of Congress.

Passmore Williamson, an abolitionist, was jailed for contempt of court for giving evasive testimony regarding his part in freeing three slaves. This court power has been limited somewhat by Supreme Court rulings designed to prevent abuses.

(Library of Congress)

Congress removed the limitations on its contempt power by enacting a law in 1857 that made it a criminal offense to refuse to provide information to either chamber. During the Cold War and congressional investigations of communism in the United States, the Court changed its position on the ability of Congress to force witnesses to testify. In Watkins v. United States[case]Watkins v. United States[Watkins v. United States] (1957), the Court stated that a witness could be held in contempt only for not answering questions that were relevant to the investigation. The Court moved away from this position in Barenblatt v. United States[case]Barenblatt v. United States[Barenblatt v. United States] (1959), stating that Congress had a significant interest in learning about Barenblatt’s activities as an alleged communist.

Barenblatt v. United States

Congressional power of investigation

Contempt power of courts

Watkins v. United States

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