William Barr contempt order: What is contempt of Congress; how does it work?

Update 4:55 p.m. EDT May 8: The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Wednesday, 24 to 16, to hold William Barr in contempt of Congress. The measure will go to the full House for a vote.

Previous report: The House Judiciary Committee will vote Wednesday on whether to hold U.S. Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after he missed a Monday deadline to produce the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller.

The panel had set a deadline of 9 a.m. Monday for Barr to provide the unredacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Judiciary Committee announced the planned Wednesday vote in a statement Monday.

According to the contempt report, Barr had plenty of time to get the full report to the committee and no excuse not to, but he did not meet the deadline.

“Although the Committee has attempted to engage in accommodations with Attorney General Barr for several months, it can no longer afford to delay and must resort to contempt proceedings,” according to the report released by Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.

“The Committee urgently requires access to the full, unredacted Mueller Report and to the investigatory and evidentiary materials cited in the Report.”

What happens when someone is held in contempt of Congress? Here’s a look at the process.

What is contempt of Congress?
Congress can hold a person in contempt if that person's conduct obstructs congressional proceedings or obstructs an inquiry by a congressional committee. Refusing to testify or refusing to turn over documents can constitute contempt.

Where in the Constitution does it say Congress can bring contempt charges?

There is nothing in the Constitution that gives Congress the specific authority to hold someone in contempt. However, the Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that Congress has the right under some circumstances to compel people to comply with its requests when it is legitimately overseeing an inquiry.

What law governs Congress’s ability to hold someone in contempt?

A law enacted in 1938 – 2 USCA § 192 – says that any person who is summoned before Congress who "willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry" shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a maximum $1,000 fine and 12 month imprisonment.
So Congress can convict anyone of contempt for any matter?

While its power is broad, there are limits to what Congress can do. Before a congressional witness can be convicted of contempt, it must be established that the person being charged has something to do with a subject that Congress has the constitutional power to legislate.

In other words, Congress cannot just go after anyone for anything. Congress must have the authority to look into a matter in order to bring contempt charges against someone who is preventing them from getting information on that matter.

Also, a person cannot be made to answer questions if there is a legal basis that allows them not to answer – such as the right against incriminating yourself guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment.

Barr says he cannot turn over the full report because the law prohibits him from turning over secret grand-jury testimony.

What is the process of holding someone in contempt?

Once a contempt citation is issued, a vote must be taken.

The vote can come from a subcommittee, as Nadler has said will happen on Wednesday, or it can come from the full body of either the House or the Senate.

In this case, a committee of the House is involved. Once the vote takes place in the Judiciary Committee, and if the motion passes, then the next step is a vote by the full House.

A simple majority of the 435-member house is needed to support a finding of contempt.

Then what happens?

Once the vote is taken and if the matter passes the full House, the Speaker of the House turns the matter over to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
The U.S. attorney would then bring the matter before a grand jury

If prosecuted and convicted of contempt of Congress, a person could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to a year in jail.

Doesn’t a U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia work for the Justice Department? Will he or she enforce a contempt of Congress finding against Barr?

That remains to be seen, but there is a chance he or she will not enforce a contempt charge.

Federal prosecutors do not have to bring charges on every issue, and may not be especially inclined to bring them against the person in charge of the Justice Department.

Is there anything else the House could do?

There is a method that has not been used for many years but is an option for the leadership of the House.

method called "inherent contempt" would allow a person to be arrested by the sergeant-at-arms of the House or Senate and brought before the accusing legislative body for a trial. 

If convicted, the person could be imprisoned until they agree to comply with what Congress wants from them.

They can be held in jail until the end of the current congressional session – that would be Jan. 3, 2021 – or they could be released whenever Congress decides to let them go before Jan. 3, 2021.

If the House were to invoke inherent contempt charges, technically the person could be imprisoned in a spare room at the Capitol, a Capitol Police holding cell or a nearby hotel.

However, this is not likely to happen. Inherent contempt has not been used since 1935.

What is likely to happen?

If a deal cannot be worked out, Congress is likely to bring a civil lawsuit asking a judge to get involved. If the judge rules that a person must answer questions or surrender documents, then the person must do so or face contempt of court charges.
Contempt of court is usually enforced with daily fines or imprisonment.