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If You’re Held in Contempt, Here’s What You Need to Know

17 November 2020 No Comment

You have probably heard of the phrase, ‘being held in contempt.’ On the other hand, do you know what it means? Many people don’t know exactly what being held in contempt means and that is something I seek to remedy using this article. Recent developments in the American justice system have brought the issue of contempt into the fray.

The process by which someone can be held in contempt is very interesting as we will see below. However, first things first. Let us begin by finding out exactly what being held in contempt entails.

What Does Contempt of Congress Mean?

If you obstruct congress from doing its job, then you are considered to be in contempt of congress. That may involve preventing congressional proceedings or any inquiry by a congressional committee from taking place.

During a congressional investigation, they will typically subpoena a party to present themselves or certain documents before a congressional committee. Failure to comply is what constitutes a contempt of Congress, hence you are ‘held in contempt.’

Failure to present or send the documents is an example of being in contempt and so is the failure to honor a congressional hearing. However, strenuous circumstances, such as illness or injury can lead to an exception.

A congressional investigation is a very serious issue, so not many people are usually held in contempt of congress. In fact, less than 30 people have been held in contempt for the last forty years.

Is Congressional Contempt a Constitutional Right?

The fact is that there is no part of the constitution that gives Congress the right to hold someone in contempt. So, where do they get the authority to hold anyone in contempt?

Congress is an executive branch of the government as is the Judiciary. The power Congress has to hold people in contempt has arisen from previous rulings from the Supreme Court.

The court gives Congress the power to do so under certain circumstances which are typically when it is legitimately overseeing an inquiry. Therefore, you must comply with their requests.

Is There a Law Addressing Congress’ Ability to Hold One in Contempt?

Yes, there is a law that relates to Congress’s right to hold people in contempt. The law is 2 USCA § 192 which was enacted way back in 1938.

The law states that anyone who is summoned by Congress should avail themselves. It also states that when asked a question during the inquiry, a person should answer.

Failure to do so is guilty of a misdemeanor charge and will be charged a fine of up to $1000 or 12 months in prison.

So, Anyone Can Be Held in Contempt for Anything?

Though Congress is incredibly powerful, there are limits to what it can do. To be clear, there are things that Congress has the constitutional power to legislate.

To be held in contempt, you must be charged with violating one of Congress’ legislation. Therefore, the answer is no. Congress cannot hold anyone in contempt for anything.

However, if you are held in contempt, you should contact a law firm, as this group works those cases. You might just be able to beat the charge if you have a good lawyer.

Moreover, Congress cannot force you to answer a question if there is legal standing for you not to answer. For example, you can plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating yourself.

What is the Process of Being ‘Held in Contempt’?

The first thing is that there must be a charge of contempt issues against you. Then a vote will happen in Congress (House or Senate). The vote should have a majority win for the case to go forward and for Congress to find you in contempt.

When the vote passes, the speaker of the House or the Senate will then turn the case over to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The U.S attorney will review the case and determine if it is worth pursuing.

If it is, the U.S attorney will bring the case before a grand jury. The jury will then issue the final judgment as to whether you are guilty or innocent of being in contempt of congress.

As stated earlier, the penalties for being guilty are a fine of up to $1000 or a year in jail.

What Else Can Congress Do?

There is something else that the Congress can do if they hold you in contempt, but they have not done it in a very long time. It is something referred to as ‘inherent contempt’.

Inherent contempt is a procedure whereby a person can be arrested by the Sergeant at arms of the House or the Senate. They will then be brought to trial by the legislative entity responsible for levying the charge.

If you are convicted under inherent contempt, you may be imprisoned until you comply with the wishes of Congress. Congress can decide to let you out on a particular date or they can let you stay in jail until the end of the current congressional session.

Those that are held in inherent contempt are not held in a regular prison. Instead, you are held in a Capitol Hill police cell or even in a hotel.

But as I stated earlier, inherent contempt has not been used since 1935.

Repercussions of Being Held in Contempt

Once you are imprisoned or held in contempt at a different facility, then Congress will try to work out a deal with you. If a deal cannot be reached, then Congress will file a civil lawsuit against you and involve a judge.

The judge will then rule on the case and whether you should avail yourself or present the necessary documents to Congress. If the judge decides that you should comply with the requests of Congress, then you must do so or be in contempt of court.

Being in contempt of court is worse than being in contempt of Congress as it includes daily fines and long prison time.

There is much more to learn about being held in contempt of Congress. The above are only the basics to give you a cursory understanding of the subject.   Being held in contempt of Congress is a very serious issue as you can see. However, you should avoid being held in contempt of court at all costs.

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