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Contempt power of Congress

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Significance: The Supreme Court recognized the contempt power of Congress as inherent in its investigatory powers. In 1857 Congress enacted a statute making it a criminal offense to refuse to provide information to the House or the Senate.


In Anderson v. Dunn (1821), the Supreme Court recognized the inherent contempt power of Congress. The power included the ability of the House of Representatives and the Senate to punish contempt, or failure to cooperate with an investigation, by jailing the offender. The Court limited the contempt power by specifying that imprisonment could not extend beyond the adjournment of Congress. Congress removed the limitations on its contempt power by enacting a law in 1857 that made it a criminal offense to refuse to provide information to either chamber. During the Cold War and congressional investigations of communism in the United States, the Court changed its position on the ability of Congress to force witnesses to testify. In Watkins v. United States (1957), the Court stated that a witness could be held in contempt only for not answering questions that were relevant to the investigation. The Court moved away from this position in Barenblatt v. United States (1959), stating that Congress had a significant interest in learning about Barenblatt's activities as an alleged communist.