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Contempt Citation Isn't What It Used To Be

By Bruce Morton/CNN

Donald Ritchie

WASHINGTON (Aug. 7) -- In the old days, when the House and Senate would cite someone for contempt, refusing to answer questions or turn over documents, they would send the sergeant at arms to arrest the fellow.

"Bring them up to the bar, in a sense, before the presiding officer to be told that they're in contempt and then they must answer these questions to satisfy it [the contempt citation]," says Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "And if they didn't, from time to time, they actually held people prisoner in the Capitol building. It was mostly journalists."

The House could still do that, but instead uses an 1857 law which sends the prosecution to a U.S. attorney.

Henry Kissinger

Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy was cited for refusing to testify under oath; he got a suspended sentence.

Attorney General Janet Reno is the third cabinet officer to be cited by a committee.

Henry Kissinger was cited for refusing to produce records involving CIA operations, and Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt was also voted in contempt for withholding documents.

Constitutional law expert Bruce Fein says that after the initial citation was issued, an arrangement was worked out "so that it didn't result in an actual conflict either in court or Congress itself."

Ann Gorsuch Burford

The full House did cite Ann Gorsuch Burford, Reagan's head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the case went to a U.S. attorney.

"He declined to prosecute, and the Justice Department, in fact, then petitioned the courts to throw out this case," Ritchie says. "The courts refused to do that, but the courts essentially said, 'You two branches ought to sit down and work this out.'"

They did. Burford resigned, though Reagan urged her to stay, and Congress got some of the documents it wanted.

The trouble is, if Congress cites a cabinet officer like Reno for contempt, it runs into the constitutional separation of powers doctrine.

Bruce Fein

"There are separation of powers issues raised because, in this case, Congress is seeking what you might call internal prosecutorial memoranda, regarding ongoing criminal investigation," Fein says.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), whose committee voted to cite Reno, has also threatened White House Counsel Charles Ruff and his predecessor, Jack Quinn, with contempt. In each case the White House turned over some of the documents Burton wanted. So far, Reno has not.

In Other News

Monday, August 10, 1998

Clinton Committed To Testify
Monica Fallout Doesn't Hurt Democrats' Fund-Raising
Jury Selection Begins In McDougal's Embezzlement Trial
Contempt Citation Isn't What It Used To Be

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