Kilbourn v. Thompson 103 U.S. 168 (1881)

views updated

KILBOURN v. THOMPSON 103 U.S. 168 (1881)

Until this case Congress believed that its power of conducting investigations was unlimited and that its judicial authority to punish contumacious witnesses for contempt was unquestionable. After this case both the investigatory and contempt powers of Congress were distinctly limited and subject to judicial review. Not until mcgrain v. daugherty (1927) did the Court firmly establish the constitutional basis for oversight and investigatory powers. The decision in Kilbourn was so negative in character that the legitimate area of legislative investigations seemed murky.

Kilbourn developed out of the House's investigation, by a select committee, into the activities of a bankrupt banking firm that owed money to the United States. The committee subpoenaed Kilbourn's records, which he refused to produce, and interrogated him, but he refused to answer on the ground that the questions concerned private matters. The House cited him for contempt and jailed him. He in turn sued for false arrest, and on a writ of habeas corpus he obtained a review of his case before the Supreme Court.

Unanimously, in an opinion by Justice samuel f. miller, the Court held that neither house of Congress can punish a witness for contumacy unless his testimony is required on a matter concerning which "the House has jurisdiction to inquire," and, Miller added, neither house has "the general power of making inquiry into the private affairs of the citizen." The subject of this inquiry, Miller said, was judicial in nature, not legislative, and a case was pending in a lower federal court. The investigation was fruitless also because "it could result in no valid legislation" on the subject of the inquiry. Thus, the courts hold final power to decide what constitutes a contempt of Congress, and Congress cannot compel a witness to testify in an investigation that cannot assist remedial legislation.

Leonard W. Levy