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The Case for Direct Appointment by the House of Outside Counsel to Prosecute Citations of Criminal Contempt of Executive Branch Officials

by Morton Rosenberg and William J. Murphy


Since 2006 the House of Representatives has inexplicably acquiesced in a Justice Department strategy that has successfully obstructed the ability of committees to enforce subpoena demands for documents and testimony relevant to the exercise of their legitimate, constitutionally-based legislative responsibilities. This obstructive scheme has escalated steadily over the last thirteen years and apparently reached its apogee with the President’s actualization of his blanket threat to ignore any congressional investigative oversight demands he disfavors. This strategy rests solely upon opinions of the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that deny the constitutional authority of either House of Congress to invoke the historically recognized coercive and punitive enforcement processes of inherent and criminal contempt against Executive Branch officials who have been instructed by the President to claim executive privilege in response to congressional information gathering demands. These OLC opinions, however, are faulty and, in most respects, present deliberately false and misleading fabrications of constitutional law, history and practice. They erroneously assert: (1) that a U.S. Attorney is not required to refer a criminal contempt citation to a grand jury as a function of prosecutorial discretion, implying that civil litigation is the sole route for congressional subpoena enforcement; (2) that the 1857 criminal contempt of Congress legislation enacted to support congressional subpoena enforcement was never intended to apply to executive branch officials; (3) that the Executive is vested with  exclusive discretion to determine whether to prosecute violations of law which prohibits the Legislative and Judicial Branches from directly interfering with that discretionary authority; and (4) that the very threat of criminal contempt against an agency official would be unconstitutional because it would unduly chill the President’s ability to effectively protect presumptively privileged executive deliberations. The failure to challenge these extraordinary OLC assumptions and the multi-decade campaign of executive branch subversion of legislative authority they have supported has deprived Congress access to its two historically most effective mechanisms for subpoena enforcement, inherent and criminal contempt. That has resulted in the loss of any credible threat of meaningful personal punishment for subpoena noncompliance, and forced committees to seek judicial assistance in dilatory civil enforcement actions that risk aberrant judicial decisions to gain compliance with their enforcement demands. The further consequence of this obstructive tactic has been the fostering of an almost universal environment of agency slow-walking, or blatant noncompliance, crippling the House’s information gathering authority, thereby undermining its constitutionally mandated legislative function.

The House of Representatives should challenge this obstructive executive branch stratagem with the powerful combination of heavy personal fines for subpoena non-compliance imposed through a modified inherent contempt process coupled with the authority of direct appointment by the Speaker of outside counsel to prosecute criminal contempts should the coercive monetary penalties prove insufficient. This integrated enforcement process can be established through the exercise of the House’s internal rulemaking authority either by amending House rules or the adoption of a House resolution. A close examination of over two centuries of legislative actions and judicial endorsements leads to the indubitable conclusion that each House of Congress is vested with inviolable inherent institutional self-protective powers that may not be intruded upon or obstructed by actions of the Executive or Judicial branches nor abandoned by either House, and is not subject to the presidential pardon authority. It is a “core” power emanating from British parliamentary, colonial and early post-revolutionary state usage that was adopted and put into practice by the first Congresses in recognition of its necessity as a vital adjunct to the accomplishment of its legislative responsibilities. Broad Supreme Court approval of the inherent contempt process was quickly forthcoming and soon complemented by the addition of a supplemental criminal contempt alternative that has also received High Court validation. Over the years, the combination of the threats of inherent and criminal contempt proved demonstrably effective in eliciting compliance with information demands from nonmembers, including Executive Branch officials. 

This article will focus on the validity of the second element of this proposal, the direct appointment of prosecuting attorneys by either House of Congress to vindicate the necessary, indispensable exercise of legitimate legislative authorities and responsibilities. Two hundred years of constitutional recognition and practice give it an indisputable place as one of the key elements of our Founders scheme of separated powers, a quintessential example of constitutional originalism. We will examine four critical historical reference points that totally undermine and refute the current obstructive stance of the Executive Branch that attempts to preempt Congress’s core constitutional authority and responsibility to inform itself to effectively accomplish its legislative mission and fully supports the remedial policy recommendations presented herein including: (1) the foundation era from 1789 to 1857, (2) the period surrounding the Department of Justice Act of 1870, (3) the Tea Pot Dome scandal of the mid-1920s, and (4) the Reagan Administration attack on oversight authority. We conclude that the current, and likely continued, uncertainty of the House’s information gathering authorities demands a constitutional confrontation. It must act with urgency to reclaim its fundamental institutional prerogatives, restore effective oversight, and neutralize the illegitimate Justice Department policies and practices intended to prevent it from employing its historically recognized, essential and demonstrably successful contempt enforcement powers.

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