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What is Civil Contempt and What Does Yesterdays House Vote Mean?

By Cameron Gonzales
    Cameron Gonzales

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to allow for its leaders to move forward and pursue civil contempt cases against Cabinet members, bankers, administration officials, etc. who have ignored subpoenas. While the vote did give the House more power to enforce subpoenas, it was not the most partisan or sweeping power they could have bestowed upon themselves. As entertained previously, House leaders could have decided to hold those that defied subpoenas in contempt of Congress. The two types of contempt differ widely in their punishment and operation.

            The punishment of a civil contempt charge is only in effect until the person in violation of the law complies with the subpoena. On the other hand, a person held in contempt of Congress is subject to the potential of fines and a prison sentence. As such, the process is much longer in Congressional contempt cases. These powers are bestowed upon Congress as a check, and they assure that the enforcement powers of Congress are preserved. To not pursue further action when a subpoena is defied is to weaken the branch and the rule of law.

The two targets of this vote are Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. Both have ignored congressional subpoenas to testify on findings from the Mueller report. As a compromise, Jerry Nadler (Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) has agreed to hold off on suing Barr in exchange for additional evidence in the Mueller report. While Nadler is giving time to the Department of Justice to comply, he made clear that if important information was held back, he would not hesitate to go to court and enforce the subpoena. Thanks to recent reporting by senior administration officials, we are now aware that the Department of Justice will review what evidence the committee is allowed to see with the White House. This is an unprecedented push back against congressional oversight, and may lead to further conflict as the Trump Administration continues to stonewall Congress.

In April, Attorney General William Barr failed to show up to a requested hearing in front of Congress regarding the Mueller investigation. This action belittles the Congress, and if Congress does not act to enforce their power, the branch itself is weakened. Barr himself admitted to coming up with an alternate conclusion to the Mueller report, stating that the Special Councils conclusion, “did not reflect the views of the department. It was the views of a particular lawyer or lawyers, and so, we applied what we thought was the right law.”[1] This has called into question the legitimacy of the DOJ conclusion and suggests that redacted evidence may be withheld due to its incriminating nature on behalf of the President.

The Mueller Report outlined 10 actions with substantial evidence for obstruction of justice by the President. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn was involved in at least three of those incidences. This included the attempted un-recusal of then Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Vol.2, pg. 215), numerous phone calls and in person requests by the President that McGahn get Special Counsel Robert Mueller fired (Vol.2, pg. 216), and finally at least four occurrences in which the President directly and indirectly requested that McGahn falsify documents to create an official record that the President did not request SC Mueller be fired (Vol. 2, pg. 217-218), leading to McGahn’s resignation[2]. Due to his involvement in key actions of potential obstruction of justice, his testimony is key in determining intent and whether the President committed actions that constitute obstruction of justice.

In an effort to exercise oversight responsibility and determine the role that Russia played in our 2016 election, as well as any potentially illegal action on the part of the President, Congress has taken it upon themselves to further the investigation. Mueller himself stated in his resignation speech, “if we had had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not.”[3] Due to current Department of Justice rules, a sitting President cannot be indicted or charged with a crime, barring Special Counsel Robert Mueller from providing a verdict. Instead, he seems to suggest, it is up to Congress to determine if the offenses constitute criminal activity.

Since individuals linked to the Administration continue to defy subpoenas, it is the responsibility of the Congress to enforce their requests. It is hoped that the vote to hold defiant witnesses in civil contempt will speed up the investigation process and allow for full transparency. Whether you are team blue or red, or somewhere in between, we ought to request full and thorough transparency of our government. Additionally, as citizens of such a strong democracy, we must assure that our institutions are not eroded by those that choose to defy the law.


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