Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.



February 4, 1935



Hughes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo; McReynolds took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Brandeis

[ 294 U.S. Page 143]

 MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This petition for a writ of habeas corpus was brought in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia by William P. MacCracken, Jr., against Chesley W. Jurney, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate of the United States. The writ issued; the body of the petitioner was produced before that court; and the case was then heard on demurrer to the petition. The trial court discharged the writ and dismissed the petition. The Court of Appeals, two justices dissenting, reversed that judgment and remanded the case to the Supreme Court of the District with directions to discharge the prisoner from custody. 63 App. D.C. 342; 72 F.2d 560. This Court granted certiorari because of the importance of the question presented.

The petition alleges that MacCracken was, on February 12, 1934, arrested, and is held, under a warrant issued on February 9, 1934, after MacCracken had respectfully declined to appear before the bar of the Senate in response to a citation served upon him pursuant to Resolution 172, adopted by the Senate on February 5, 1934. The Resolution provides:

[ 294 U.S. Page 144]

     "Resolved, That the President of the Senate issue a citation directing William P. MacCracken, Jr., L. H. Brittin, Gilbert Givvin, and Harris M. Hanshue to show cause why they should not be punished for contempt of the Senate, on account of the destruction and removal of certain papers, files, and memorandums from the files of William P. MacCracken, Jr., after a subpoena had been served upon William P. MacCracken, Jr., as shown by the report of the Special Senate Committee Investigating Ocean and Air Mail Contracts."

It is conceded that the Senate was engaged in an enquiry which it had the constitutional power to make; that the Committee*fn1 had authority to require the production of papers as a necessary incident of the power of legislation; and that the Senate had the power to coerce their production by means of arrest. McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135. No question is raised as to the propriety of the scope of the subpoena duces tecum, or as to the regularity of any of the proceedings which preceded the arrest. The claim of privilege hereinafter referred to is no longer an issue. MacCracken's sole contention is that the Senate was without power to arrest him with a view to punishing him, because the act complained of -- the alleged destruction and removal of the papers after service of the subpoena -- was "the past commission of a completed act which prior to the arrest and the proceedings to punish had reached such a stage of finality that it could not longer affect the proceedings of the Senate or any Committee thereof, and which, and the effects of which, had been undone long before the arrest."

The petition occupies, with exhibits, 100 pages of the printed record in this Court; but the only additional averments

[ 294 U.S. Page 145]

     essential to the decision of the question presented are, in substance, these: The Senate had appointed the Special Committee to make "a full, complete and detailed inquiry into all existing contracts entered into by the Postmaster General for the carriage of air mail and ocean mail." MacCracken had been served, on January 31, 1934, with a subpoena duces tecum to appear "instanter" before the Committee and to bring all books of account and papers "relating to air mail and ocean mail contracts." The witness appeared on that day; stated that he was a lawyer, member of the firm of MacCracken & Lee, with offices in the District; that he was ready to produce all papers which he lawfully could; but that many of those in his possession were privileged communications between himself and corporations or individuals for whom he had acted as attorney; that he could not lawfully produce such papers without the client first having waived the privilege; and that, unless he secured such a waiver, he must exercise his own judgment as to what papers were within the privilege. He gave, however, to the Committee the names of these clients; stated the character of services rendered for each; and, at the suggestion of the Committee, telegraphed to each asking whether consent to disclose confidential communications would be given. From some of the clients he secured immediately unconditional consent; and on February 1, produced all the papers relating to the business of the clients who had so consented.

On February 2, before the Committee had decided whether the production of all the papers should be compelled despite the claims of privilege, MacCracken again appeared and testified as follows: On February 1, he personally permitted Givven, a representative of Western Air Express, to examine, without supervision, the files containing papers concerning that company; and authorized

[ 294 U.S. Page 146]

     him to take therefrom papers which did not relate to air mail contracts. Givven, in fact, took some papers which did relate to air mail contracts. On the same day, Brittin, vice-president of Northwest Airways, Inc., without MacCracken's knowledge, requested and received from his partner, Lee, permission to examine the files relating to that company's business and to remove therefrom some papers stated by Brittin to have been dictated by him in Lee's office and to be wholly personal and unrelated to matters under investigation by the Committee. Brittin removed from the files some papers; took them to his office; and, with a view to destroying them, tore them into pieces and threw the pieces into a wastepaper basket.

upon the conclusion of MacCracken's testimony on February 2, the Committee decided that none of the papers in his possession could be withheld under the claim of privilege.*fn2 Later that day MacCracken received from the rest of his clients waivers of their privilege; and thereupon promptly made available to the Committee all the papers then remaining in the files. On February 3, (after a request therefor by MacCracken) Givven restored to the files what he stated were all the papers taken by him. The petition does not allege that any of the papers taken by

[ 294 U.S. Page 147]

     Brittin were later produced.*fn3 It avers that, prior to the adoption of the citation for contempt under Resolution 172, MacCracken had produced and delivered to the Senate of the United States "to the best of his ability, knowledge and belief, every paper of every kind and description in his possession or under his control, relating in any way to air mail and ocean mail contracts; [and that] on February 5, 1934 . . . all of said papers were turned over and delivered to said Senate Committee and since that date they have been, and they now are, in the possession of said Committee."

First. The main contention of MacCracken is that the so-called power to punish for contempt may never be exerted, in the case of a private citizen, solely qua punishment. The argument is that the power may be used by the legislative body merely as a means of removing an existing obstruction to the performance of its duties; that the power to punish ceases as soon as the obstruction has been removed, or its removal has become impossible; and hence that there is no power to punish a witness who, having been requested to produce papers, destroys them after service of the subpoena. The contention rests upon a misconception of the limitations upon the power of the Houses of Congress to punish for contempt. It is true that the scope of the power is narrow. No act is so punishable

[ 294 U.S. Page 148]

     unless it is of a nature to obstruct the performance of the duties of the legislature. There may be lack of power, because, as in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, there was no legislative duty to be performed; or because, as in Marshall v. Gordon, 243 U.S. 521, the act complained of is deemed not to be of a character to obstruct the legislative process. But, where the offending act was of a nature to obstruct the legislative process, the fact that the obstruction has since been removed, or that its removal has become impossible is without legal significance.

The power to punish a private citizen for a past and completed act was exerted by Congress as arly as 1795;*fn4 and since then it has been exercised on several occasions.*fn5 It was asserted, before the Revolution, by the colonial

[ 294 U.S. Page 149]

     assemblies, in imitation of the British House of Commons; and afterwards by the Continental Congress and by state legislative bodies.*fn6 In Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204, decided in 1821, it was held that the House had power to punish a private citizen for an attempt to bribe a member. No case has been found in which an exertion of the power to punish for contempt has been successfully challenged on the ground that, before punishment, the offending act had been consummated or that the obstruction suffered was irremediable. The statements in the opinion in Marshall v. Gordon, supra, upon which MacCracken relies, must be read in the light of the particular facts. It was there recognized that the only jurisdictional test to be applied by the court is the character of the offence; and that the continuance of the obstruction, or the likelihood of its repetition, are considerations for the discretion of the legislators in meting out the punishment.

Here, we are concerned, not with an extension of congressional privilege, but with vindication of the established

[ 294 U.S. Page 150]

     and essential privilege of requiring the production of evidence. For this purpose, the power to punish for a past contempt is an appropriate means.*fn7 Compare Ex parte Nugent, Fed. Cas. No. 10,375; Stewart v. Blaine, 1 MacArthur 453. The apprehensions expressed from time to time in congressional debates, in opposition to particular exercises of the contempt power, concerned not the power to punish, as such, but the broad, undefined privileges which it was believed might find sanction in that power.*fn8 The ground for such fears has since been effectively removed by the decisions of this Court which hold that assertions of congressional privilege are subject to judicial review, Kilbourn v. Thompson, supra ; and that the power to punish for contempt may not be extended to slanderous attacks which present no immediate obstruction to legislative processes. Marshall v. Gordon, supra.

[ 294 U.S. Page 151]

     to punishment for the same acts as contempts, the two being diverso intuito and capable of standing together."

Third. MacCracken contends that he is not punishable for contempt, because the obstruction, if any, which he caused to legislative processes, had been entirely removed and its evil effects undone before the contempt proceedings were instituted. He points to the allegations in the petition for habeas corpus that he had surrendered all papers in his possession; that he was ready and willing to give any additional testimony which the Committee might require; that he had secured the return of the papers taken from the files by Givven, with his permission; and that he was in no way responsible for the removal and destruction of the papers by Brittin. This contention goes to the question of guilt, not to that of the jurisdiction of the Senate. The contempt with which MacCracken is charged is "the destruction and removal of certain papers." Whether he is guilty, and whether he has so far purged himself of contempt that he does not now deserve punishment, are the questions which the Senate proposes to try. The respondent to the petition did not, by demurring, transfer to the court the decision of those questions. The sole function of the writ of habeas corpus is to have the court decide whether the Senate has jurisdiction to make the determination which it proposes. Compare Barry v. United States ex rel. Cunningham, 279 U.S. 597; Henry v. Henkel, 235 U.S. 219; Matter of Gregory, 219 U.S. 210.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals should be reversed; and that of the Supreme Court of the District should be affirmed.


MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


* The substance of Mr. Sumners' oral argument is taken from a copy which was kindly furnished by him at the request of the Reporter.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.