House should pursue inherent contempt

The House Judiciary Committee today voted 20-14 to find Karl Rove in contempt for ignoring a committee subpoena. However, the contempt resolution the Committee passed today is different from the contempt citations issued against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

The citation passed today includes language stating that the House of Representatives should pursue enforcing the subpoena through other legal remedies as appropriate, leaving the door open for the House to exercise its power of “inherent contempt.”

“If the Judiciary Committee truly wants to hear what Rove knows, it should pursue every option available to it to compel his testimony,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “Congress cannot carry out its Constitutional oversight responsibility if it cannot compel witnesses to come before it and tell the truth when subpoenaed.”

Under the inherent contempt power, the House Sergeant-at-Arms has the authority to take Karl Rove into custody and bring him to the House where his contempt case can be tried, presumably, by a standing or select committee. If he is found by the House to be in Contempt of Congress, he can be imprisoned for an amount of time determined by the House (not to exceed the term of the 110th Congress which ends the beginning of January 2009) or until he agrees to testify.

The Supreme Court has recognized the power of the House to enforce its own subpoenas through the inherent contempt provision, stating that without it, Congress “would be exposed to every indignity and interruption that rudeness, caprice or even conspiracy may mediate against it.” Before Congress asked the Justice Department to try contempt cases on its behalf, the inherent contempt power was used more than 85 times between 1795 and 1934, mostly to compel testimony and documents.