Eric Holder's Contempt of Congress Charge Political?

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By Andrew Chow, Esq. on June 20, 2012 4:59 PM

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should be held in contempt of Congress, a House committee asserted in a party-line vote. The contempt resolution now moves to the full House for consideration, USA Today reports.

The committee's 23-17 contempt vote came after Holder refused to comply with a subpoena seeking documents related to a controversial Justice Department gun-tracking program called Fast and Furious. Hours earlier, President Obama had asserted executive privilege to keep the documents confidential.

So what is contempt of Congress, and how is it different than contempt of court?

Contempt of court can be civil or criminal. In general, civil contempt of court occurs when someone fails to comply with a court order (for example, failing to pay child support), while criminal contempt of court is used to punish a party for disrupting proceedings (for example, yelling at a judge or refusing to testify before a grand jury).

Similar to contempt of court, contempt of Congress can also land a person behind bars for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena. This can happen in three ways:

  1. Via Congress' own powers. In rare situations, Congress can use its inherent powers to detain and imprison someone until the person complies with congressional demands.
  2. Via the executive branch. Congress can certify a contempt citation and ask the Justice Department to prosecute under a federal criminal contempt statute. (But when subpoenaed information is protected by executive privilege, as it is in Attorney General Eric Holder's contempt situation, the Justice Department has historically declined to prosecute, according to a Congressional Research Service report.)
  3. Via the judicial branch. Congress can seek a civil judgment from a federal court to declare a person legally obligated to comply with a congressional subpoena.

With regards to Attorney General Eric Holder's alleged contempt of Congress, the third option could be the path taken. "Where the target of the subpoena is an executive branch official, civil enforcement may be the only practical means by which Congress can effectively ensure compliance with its own subpoena," the Congressional Research Service reports.

The full House of Representatives plans to vote on Eric Holder's contempt of Congress resolution before the July 4 recess, USA Today reports.

The full GOP-controlled House of Representatives plans to vote on Eric Holder's contempt of Congress resolution next week, Businessweek reports. Of course, nothing is set in stone yet.

Holder still has time to comply with the subpoena or make a political deal with GOP leaders to avoid being held in contempt. Expect some more political maneuvering before this is settled.

[Editor's note: 6/20/12 11:45 p.m. PST: This post was updated to clarify the procedural process of holding someone in contempt of Congress.]

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