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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 CORPUShe 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.

The Court reasoned that every indulgence of legality must be given to the actions of the federal government but that flexibility must give way to unreasonable infringements of constitutional freedoms. Any inquiry made by Congress must be made in relation to a legitimate aim of Congress and not for the sole purpose of public exposure. however. Watkins agreed to describe his connections with the Communist Party and to identify its current members. Appearing in front of the committee.S. In Clark’s view. particularly in pursuit of public need or welfare. Between 1935 and 1953. because he had not been given enough information revealing the aims of the committee. The answer the Court gave rests on the principles of the power of Congress and the limitations upon that power. Without such justification. United States. the Court should presume that a legislative body had a legitimate purpose if the language giving it authority could be interpreted to do so. The committee had obtained his name through the testimony of two prior witnesses. a labor organizer. expose. Watkins had either been a member of. Watkins argued that such inquiries were beyond the scope and authority of the committee. and that the committee was engaged in a program of exposure for the sake of exposure. 354 U. The question before the Court became whether the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power. when Congress may encroach upon an individual’s rights. he served as an official to the Farm Equipment Workers International Union. character. the activities of members of the Communist Party. He later rose to the position of president of District No. . he should not have been allowed to invoke the constitutional rights of another. later the United Electrical. in his analysis Clark ignored the “plain meaning” interpretation given to most statutory language and insisted on a more contextual interpretation. Clark stated that the purpose and charter of the committee authorized investigation into subversive activity—its extent. Words such as “un-American” or phrases like “principle of the form of government” may be vague. However. and Machine Workers. he refused to give information concerning individuals who had left the party or who had fallen into disassociation. However. The dissent by Justice Clark considered the notion that Watkins was not protecting his won rights under the Fifth Amendment but rather was protecting the private affairs of other individuals. 178 (1957) In 1954 John Watkins. Watkins should not be exempt from testimony simply because he claimed he was not informed of the committee’s intentions. but these instances must be justified by a specific legislative need. the Court determined that the committee’s actions exceeded the scope of congressional power and that Watkins was within his rights to refuse the inquiries regarding those individuals no longer associated with the Communist Party. Radio. In addition. During the last 11 of those years. In 1953 he became a labor organizer for the United Automobile Workers International Union. Watkins had been an employee of the International Harvester Company. and Clark stated that the Court should give them meaning if it could. The Court further reasoned. To illustrate his point. Furthermore. the chairman of the committee made explicit comments regarding the functions and purposes of the committee. Because Watkins had already admitted his own involvement. appeared in front of the Subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives in compliance with a subpoena. Clark pointed out that in his view the committee was acting with complete clarity. but still these are fairly well-understood terms.Watkins v. The purpose of the committee was to investigate and. namely his former associates. Therefore. that there are instances. that they served no public purpose. or was associated with. Congress possesses no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals. 2 of the Farm Equipment Workers. objects. several organizations connected with the Communist Party. and diffusion. Thus. in some cases.