Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Process of Contempt of Congress

By No Labels
June 12, 2019 | Blog

This week, Congress held two executive branch officials in contempt of court. Here are five facts on contempt and subpoena proceedings. 

1. Before someone can be held in contempt of Congress, they first must be served a subpoena.

A subpoena is court-ordered, and commands that either an individual appears in court or produces requested documents. It requires the recipient to take one of these actions, testify, or produce information for the case in question.[1]

2. Contempt of Congress differs from contempt of court.

Contempt of Congress is Congress’ power to demand or punish a person to comply with their congressional inquiries and proceedings. The Constitution gives Congress the power to hold an individual in “contempt” if a person refuses to testify or provide information requested by Congress.[2]

3. Contempt of Congress is a tool sometimes used when subpoena requests are denied.

Vox described a congressional contempt citation as “just Congress making another request to the executive branch — if a more strongly worded one.”[3]By holding an individual in contempt over subpoenas, Congress is able to go to court to enforce them, and get the information or documentation they want.[4]

4. Contempt of Congress is a federal misdemeanor.

Once the majority vote is approved, the House speaker or the Senate president turns the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who will bring it before a grand jury to determine action. Contempt of Congress is punishable by a maximum $100,000 fine and one-year sentence in a federal prison. In every previous instance of contempt of Congress, the White House and Congress have come to negotiated agreements before any criminal proceedings started.[5]

5.  The House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt of Congress.

In a 229-191 party line vote, the House of Representatives vote on Tuesday to take the two executive-branch officials to court by holding them both in civil contempt of Congress. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to AG Barr for the unredacted Mueller report, and he refused to produce this information. As for McGahn, he would not testify before the committee, under instructions from the White House, and refused to turn over the documents of such.[6]

On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee additionally voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in both civil contempt and contempt of Congress for refusing to provide information for its investigation of a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census.[7]


[1]https://litigation.findlaw.com/going-to-court/what-is-a-subpoena.html

[2]https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/02/politics/what-is-contempt-of-congress-trnd/index.html

[3]https://www.vox.com/2019/6/11/18647093/contempt-of-congress-barr-house-vote

[4]Ibid.

[5]http://www.nbcnews.com/id/19693051/ns/politics/t/what-contempt-congress/#.XQFd0i2ZNBw

[6]https://www.businessinsider.com/house-vote-attorney-general-barr-don-mcgahn-civil-contempt-2019-5

[7 https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/12/politics/house-oversight-contempt-vote-barr-ross/index.html

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