RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Power of Courts to punish for Contempts

Bill of RightsThe Rights of an American Citizen: With a Commentary on State Rights, and on the Constitution and Policy of the United States by Benjamin Lynde Oliver published 1832


CHAPTER III; Of the Power of Courts to punish for Contempts.

A Contempt of court is some gross act of indignity or affront, offered to the court while in session, and which tends to hinder or disturb the administration of justice, or to bring it into contempt with the people. It may consist either in disobedience to some lawful command of the court, by wholly refusing to comply with it; or, by doing the act commanded to be done, in an improper manner; or, by acting in a manner contrary to some lawful prohibition of the court.

It may also consist in opposing or disturbing the execution of lawful process issued by the court. It is also a contempt of court to abuse its process, by willfully doing wrong in the execution of it, as well as to do any act under the pretense of having authority from the court, but, in fact having none. It is a contempt of court also, in any person duly summoned as a witness and having had his fees tendered, to refuse to appear. So, it is a contempt of court, to practice upon a witness, who has been summoned to appear, whether by threats, bribery, &c. It has been held also, that after a dispute has been left to arbitrators under a rule of court, it will be a contempt of court, if one of the parties, without the consent of the other, should take away the papers from the arbitrators in order to stop proceedings. So, if a sheriff should grant a replevin of property, having express notice that it is irrepleviable. See 1 Wils. 75.

A gross attempt to impose upon the court, is also considered as a contempt; for example, where a man aged sixty-three years, pleads infancy. See 2 Buls. 67.

Most of the instances of contempts specified above, to which many others might be added, are contempts of court merely by construction of law. And it frequently happens that the act complained of as a contempt, is susceptible of such explanations, as to show that no indignity was intended to the court in reality. Where the act is not committed directly in the presence of the court, therefore, it is usual for the court to direct interrogatories to be administered to the party charged; so that he may explain away the contempt if he can, and clear himself; but if the act cannot be thus entirely explained away, he may avail himself of the opportunity, to make such concessions and apologies, as the nature of the case may admit or the court may require.

PrecedentIt must not be understood, however, that the court have any power or authority to compel any person, upon whom an act of contempt has been proved, to answer any inquiries in relation to the subject. Reason and the constitution equally prohibit any compulsion to a person arrested, to force him to answer any questions which may tend to incriminate himself in any case whatever. But, when the act constituting the contempt has been proved, the contempt itself is also so far proved, that, if the person charged with the contempt, either will not or cannot give a satisfactory explanation, and thus show that no indignity was in fact intended, he will be held guilty of the contempt. The administering of interrogatories to him therefore is an act of indulgence; because he is considered already as guilty of the contempt before the interrogatories are administered, and will be punished accordingly, unless he either clears himself of it, or makes a suitable apology.

Where the alleged contempt consists in some act done in the immediate presence ofthe court, the court if they see fit, may direct the offender to be imprisoned at once. Such acts are usually acts of gross indignity, or disorderly conduct, and, for the most part, seem to admit of no^excuse or palliation but that of a total ignorance of the rules of decency and good manners. Such contempts may consist in a direct personal affront offered to the judges either by word or deed; and of course hardly admit of apology or explanation. The court may therefore proceed at once to punish him. Bl. R. 640. Bur. 2129. Another contempt, though of a much less odious kind, is that of shouting, waving the hat, &c. at the termination of a trial, the result of which is particularly agreeable or disagreeable to the bystanders. This however is a contempt of court, for which a person may be committed or fined, unless the court sees fit to accept his apology. See 6 T. R. 630.

Somewhat similar to this class of contempts, is the speaking of contemptuous or reproachful words, of the court to one of its officers while serving process.

At common law, the mere establishment of a court, without any express grant of a power to punish contempts, gives this power by necessary implication j so that there is no tribunal established, however inferior in its nature, but that may justly exercise this power, at least so far as may be necessary to preserve itself from annoyance or disturbance, while in the discharge of its official duties. Accordingly it seems, that every magistrate, while holding a court, has a right to order into custody any person who should disturb its proceedings, or should insult him personally, while in the discharge of his judicial duties, or should commit any such violation of decorum, as would tend to bring him or his court into contempt among the suitors. But, it would seem, that the inferior tribunals of justice, have no authority to commit for contempts, not offered in their presence, but must proceed by indictment. See 2 Bays R. 1. In the case last cited, it was held, that a justice of the peace, while holding a court, may commit by summary conviction any person, who may offer him any insult by word or deed in his presence. It would seem, by the same case, that he is not answerable in an action, for what he does by virtue of his judicial power. But, if he should act corruptly or oppressively in his official capacity, he may be indicted for it, and punished by fine and imprisonment.

It seems a writ of error will not lie on a conviction for a fine on a contempt. See 3 Mod. 28. 1 Sal. 144, 263. Ld. Raym. 454, 1115.

The remedy for a person improperly detained in custody, in any such case, would be to apply for a habeas corpus. But the court would probably hesitate to release the prisoner, unless a clear case was made out in his favor, where he had been regularly committed for a contempt. In the case Yates v. Lansing, before cited, Piatt, senator, remarks, that, ‘ The habeas corpus act is justly prized as one of the bulwarks of freedom, and can be endangered only by its misapplication and abuse. Let us beware, that, in our zeal for securing our personal liberty, we do not destroy the virtuous independence and rightful authority of our courts of justice, and thereby subvert the foundation of social order. So long as our courts are pure, enlightened and independent, we shall enjoy the greatest of earthly blessings, a government of laws; but, whenever these tribunals shall cease to deserve that character, the standard of justice and civil liberty, must give place to the scepter of a tyrant.’

If a prisoner, after an examination on a habeas corpus, should be remanded into custody, it seems to have been the opinion of some, that a writ of error might be brought, and if the judgment should be reversed, he might be discharged by the court having authority to correct the erroneous judgment. But the better opinion seems to. be, that no writ of error will lie upon any proceedings on a habeas corpus. For, if a prisoner applies for a habeas corpus, and it is refused; or, if it is granted, and, on examination the prisoner is denied bail or enlargement, in which case he is remanded of course, there is no such final judgment, as will maintain a writ of error; for, any other court or judge having jurisdiction, may, at discretion, grant another habeas corpus and bail or discharge him upon it; or, if he applies for a habeas corpus in vacation, to one of the judges, and it is refused, he may renew his application in term time, to the whole court. On the other hand, if a prisoner is discharged on a habeas corpus, no writ of error will lie, though if such discharge is erroneous in fact, any court of competent jurisdiction may recommit him. See 6 Johns. 407, 427; cites State Trials, p. 90.

With regard to contempts of court, offered to the superior tribunals of justice, but not in their immediate presence, the law does not seem quite settled. It has been held, that it is a contempt of court either to scandalize the court itself, or any of the parties engaged in a cause, so as to prejudice others against them, before the decision of the case. See 2 Atk. 471. 2 Ves. 321, 520. And in England, where disrespectful words are spoken of the court, there will not be a rule upon the party to show cause why an attachment should not be granted against him, but an attachment will be awarded in the first instance. See Sayer’s R. 114, 47.

Where a person attached for a contempt, declines answering proper interrogatories, or gives an unsatisfactory answer, he will be considered guilty of the contempt; but the mere refusal to answer improper interrogatories, is no contempt of itself. Bl. R. 637. Upon any reasonable objection to answer an interrogatory as it is framed, the court will direct it to be modified, or will accept of a qualified answer to it. See 1 Strange’s R. 444.

Where a writ of habeas corpus issues, a proper return must be made to it, otherwise an attachment will immediately issue against the person to whom it is directed, without issuing an alias. The liberty of the people is concerned here. See 5 T. R. 89.

In England, it seems, a peer must obey the lawful process of the court of king’s bench, or otherwise, the court may award an attachment against him for the contempt. Sayer’s Rep. 50. For the same reason, Lord Preston was committed for refusing to be sworn before the grand jury. See 2 Sal. 278.

In ancient times, in that kingdom, contempts were sometimes punished with great severity; but the contempts so punished belong to a barbarous age, and there is no reason to suppose could have been restrained by milder punishments. For, where the voice of reason, and decency and good manners are disregarded, the moral sense being wanting, an appeal must of necessity be made to the animal part of human nature by corporal punishments, to keep the turbulent and disorderly within proper bounds. Where a party in a cause struck one of the jurors, who gave a verdict against him in Westminster Hall, it was awarded by the king’s council, that he should forfeit his lands and goods, and that his right hand should be struck off. So, where one justled another over, maliciously in the presence of the court, and spurned him with his feet, it was held that he should lose his right hand, though he did not strike the other either with any weapon or with his hand. See 12 Co. 71.

In those states where there is no special provision by law for the punishment of contempts, the courts can only give judgment according to the common law, and punish the offender, by fine and imprisonment.

With regard to imprisonment, it would seem, that the courts have no authority to imprison for contempts for any longer time than during the term of the court, unless in the case of constructive contempts, by refusing to obey an order of a court of chancery, where the judgment would be, that the party be imprisoned until lie obey the order. In the former case, the judgment will be, that the party be imprisoned during the pleasure of the court; but if the court should adjourn without day, without making any order in relation to the prisoner, it would seem reasonable that he should immediately be discharged on a habeas corpus. For, otherwise he might be subjected to perpetual imprisonment. See Lev. 165.

Where any contempt or disturbance is committed in any court of record, the presiding justice may either fine, or commit the person for the contempt. See 8 Co. 38, 6. Owen, 117. Cro. Eliz. 581. And in default of another remedy to recover the fine, it may be recovered by an action of debt. Mo. 470.

Where an important criminal trial is going on, before a court having final jurisdiction, it does not seem quite settled, in this country, how far the court have any lawful authority to prohibit the publication of the proceedings from day to day before the termination of the trial. On such occasions, the curiosity of the public is on the stretch, and unless there is some well-founded objection in public expediency, or in the prevention of injustice to individuals, it ought to be indulged. If the court were able, by prohibiting the publication of the public proceedings, to prevent erroneous impressions from being made on the minds of the people, there would be a plausible ground for the exercise of such a power; but this is wholly impracticable, because the people will inquire of each other, and, there can be no doubt, will receive much less accurate accounts and statements than the newspapers would exhibit, if they were not prohibited to publish the proceedings. If the design of such prohibition were to prevent the jury trying the case, from being influenced by such publications, it would be done much more effectually by directing the officer in attendance upon the jury, to prevent them from seeing any of the daily papers, until their verdict should be given. This would be a very proper measure, and would wholly prevent any possible effect upon their minds, from publications or notices of any kind in relation to the trial, The court, it is obvious, would have a perfect right to adopt this course, from the same authority which enables them to exclude all direct communications between the jury and other persons, on the subject committed to their decision. But, if the court have any lawful authority to prevent the publication of the proceedings on a trial from day to day, on what reason can it be grounded, which will not equally extend to exclude spectators from attending the trial. For, if the court have no authority to sit with closed doors, it is because the people have a right to see that every one has a fair trial, and that justice is properly administered, or, if otherwise, that there shall always be witnesses, by which oppression, partiality or misbehavior of any kind, in judicial officers, may be proved and punished. It is true, that when the evidence of the prosecution has been offered against a prisoner, who may be innocent, he will lie under the ill impression, which it may make upon the minds of those who have either heard it or read it, until he has produced the evidence in his favor. But this he will do immediately afterwards, and, in all probability, it will also immediately be communicated to the people after the lapse of one or two days, at farthest. But the verdict of the jury, it is very apparent can never be affected by it, if the daily papers are kept from the jury; so that in general, the cause of justice is not all concerned in laying any such restraint.

The publication of the records of a court, if done maliciously, and without the consent of the court, is a contempt of a different kind, and seems to admit of no such justification or apology. It is also held to be a contempt of the higher tribunals of justice, and punishable as such, to prejudice the world with regard to the merits of a case before trial, by publications in relation to it; as if the counsel in a case should publish his brief. Lord Chancellor Hardwicke committed two printers to the Fleer prison, for publishing a libel against parties to a suit then depending, &ic. He observed on that occasion; ‘Nothing is more incumbent upon courts of justice than to preserve their proceedings from being misrepresented; nor is there any thing of more pernicious consequence, than to prejudice the minds of the public, against persons concerned as parties in causes, before the cause is finally heard. That it had always been his opinion, as well as that of his predecessors, that such a proceeding should be discountenanced. But that, notwithstanding it should be a libel, yet, unless it was a contempt of the court, he had no cognizance of it; for, whether it was a libel against the public, or private persons, the only method was to proceed at law. That, upon the whole, there was no doubt this was a contempt of court.’ See 20 Atk. 469. 2 Ves. 520.

With regard to the courts of the United States, the law concerning contempts of court is declared, by Stat. 1831, ch. 98.

In the first section it is provided,—

That the power of the several courts of the United States to issue attachments and inflict summary punishments for contempts of court, shall not be construed to extend to any cases, except the misbehavior of any person or persons in the presence of the said courts, or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice, the misbehavior of any of the officers of the said courts in their official transactions, and the disobedience or resistance by any officer of the said courts, party, juror, witness, or any other person or persons, to any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of the said courts.

The second and last section provides, ‘that if any person or persons shall corruptly, or by threats or force, endeavor to influence, intimidate, or impede any juror, witness, or officer, in any court of the United States, in the discharge of his duty, or shall corruptly, or by threats or force, obstruct or impede, the due administration of justice therein, every person or persons, so offending, shall be liable to prosecution therefor, by indictment, and shall, on conviction thereof, be punished by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both, according to the nature and aggravation of the offence.

The power of punishing for contempts, as it is not denied to the lowest tribunals of justice, it would be absurd to suppose denied to a legislative assembly, when in session, whether belonging to the government of a state, or to that of the United States. In the case of Yates v. Lansing, before the supreme court of errors, of the state of New York, it is observed by Piatt, senator, that ‘the right of punishing for contempts by summary conviction, is inherent in all courts of justice, and legislative assemblies, and is essential for their protection and existence. It is a branch of the common law adopted and sanctioned by our state constitution. The discretion involved in this power, is in a great measure arbitrary and undefinable; and yet the experience of ages has demonstrated, that it is perfectly compatible with civil liberty, and auxiliary to the purest ends of justice.’ 9 Johns. 417.

It is obvious, that this power, to a certain extent, is absolutely necessary to the exercise of all those other powers, with which the people have seen fit to invest the deliberative assemblies of their state and general governments, and the proper discharge of the important trusts and duties, belonging to their respective offices; and so far, must be considered as incidentally conferred by the mere creation of those offices and the assignment of their duties. Every deliberative assembly acknowledged by law, while engaged in the discharge of its public functions, must therefore be considered as tacitly invested with full authority, to take into custody any individual who should disturb their deliberations, by any act of violence, insult, or indecorum, offered in their actual or constructive presence, and keep him in confinement without bail or mainprise, until their meeting adjourns. To admit him to make explanations, by administering interrogatories, or to afford him an opportunity of making an apology, and to discharge him from imprisonment, upon any promises which he may make of good behavior for the time to come, are merely indulgences which they may grant at their discretion, but are under no obligation to do so. For, they have a right to take effectual measures to prevent interruption, and this can be done in no other way than by imprisoning the person of the offender. It is true, they may, if they see fit, direct their officer in attendance to carry him before a suitable magistrate on a complaint for a disturbance of the peace, and compel him to find bonds for his good behavior; but this remedy they have in common with private citizens, and is wholly collateral to the exercise of their own authority. Whether the legislature have an authority to fine for a contempt, does not seem settled, but there is not the same necessity for it, because they may secure their deliberations from disturbance without it, by keeping the offender in custody. If the legislature should adjourn without day, leaving a prisoner in custody, it would seem that he would immediately be entitled to his liberty, because his confinement would no longer be necessary. But, if the legislature have a right to fine and imprison for a contempt, in the same manner as a court of record, then they may imprison for a longer time than that of their own session. The distinction lies here, that where the legislature order an individual into custody for a contempt, it may be done, either as a mere measure to secure themselves from interruption, or, as a punishment inflicted on the offender for his contempt. In the former case, it is not necessary that there should be a formal judgment or decree, that the offender be imprisoned a certain number of days; but, in the latter case, if there is any judgment of imprisonment, the duration of it must be ascertained ; for the law will not permit an indefinite judgment. If the prisoner is fined, the amount of the fine must be ascertained in like manner, and for the same reason; if left uncertain, it would be merely void; or, the payment of the smallest sum imaginable would discharge it. This leads to the final reason, why a prisoner left in custody by the legislature at the end of their session, for a contempt, without any limitation of the duration of his confinement, must be discharged; i. e. because the imprisonment ceases to be lawful, as soon as the authority which imposes it, is determined. As it is considered of great consequence in a free government, that the legislative and judicial powers should, as little as possible, be exercised by the same hands; and as generally there seems to be no reason, why the legislature should have a power to punish for contempts, except that it does not seem consistent with their dignity, that they should be obliged to call on the judicial department for protection, it would seem no more than reasonable, that their power in this respect, should be limited by the necessity to which it owes its origin. Consequently, there seems to be no sufficient reason, why the legislature should ever pass a judgment of fine or imprisonment on an individual for a contempt. To pass such a judgment, is in the first place, to make a certain act a contempt; which, being done by a vote of the house, is an act of legislation, and such a law being passed after the commission of the act, seems liable to the exception of being ex post facto, and consequently unconstitutional. In the second place, the passing of such judgment is a judicial act of course. ‘ The legislature, therefore, so far becomes a court; and the jurisdiction not being defined either by the common law, or by the general, or any of the state constitutions, is discretionary, and may become arbitrary and tyrannical. It is very clear that the legislature have no authority to enact laws, which is not given either expressly or by necessary implication, in the constitution, whence the legislature derives its own existence. Yet a law, though enacted by usurped power, would have one advantage over an arbitrary decree, made for a particular occasion. The former would be certain, and might be known, and the people would be on their guard; but against a decree, grounded on the discretion or will of the house, as shown on a particular occasion, it is impossible that the people should be on their guard. These considerations are sufficient to show, that the legislature have no unlimited power, either to determine the extent of their own privileges by ex post facto laws, or decide from time to time as the case occurs, what shall, and what shall not be considered a contempt. Within their constitutional limits, without doubt, they may enact what laws they judge expedient in relation to both subjects. But, when a case occurs, offenders must be tried by the laws as they existed at the time of the act committed, and if by law it was not a contempt at that time, the legislature cannot, by any decree made afterwards in relation to it, constitute such act a contempt.

An imaginary, though not improbable case, may serve for illustration. Let it be supposed then, that the legislature of a state sit with closed doors, with the view of keeping their deliberations from the public, but the secret is suffered to leak out and is published in a certain newspaper. Suppose the legislature then send for the editor, and require of him to take an oath to answer interrogatories truly in relation to the subject of such publication, &c. and the editor refuses to take the oath, and the legislature commit him for the contempt, or fine him; is there any thing to be said to justify their proceedings? Certainly, nothing at all. For, unless some provision is made in the constitution, whence the legislature derives its authority, or, unless the legislature have previously passed some law making provision in such cases, it will be difficult to show, that the legislature have any power whatever to compel the attendance of any individual, who does not belong to their body, except as a witness on an impeachment. Where the legislature appoint a committee with authority to send for persons and papers, if the constitution and laws are both silent on the subject, it is merely the respect which a good citizen owes his rulers, which induces him to attend their summons, and not any implied authority over him in this respect. For, except in their capacity, as legislators, the legislative assembly have no higher authority than any other assembly of individuals of equal respectability.

When therefore the editor in the case put, is sent for by the house, unless he is summoned in writing, and a sufficient legal cause for his attendance is assigned in his notification, he is under no legal obligation to attend. If he should refuse to attend, therefore, and should be taken into custody, it would be a case of false imprisonment, for which he might have redress against the officer who attached him, and if he were imprisoned for the contempt and disobedience to the legislature, in such case he would be entitled to his release on a habeas corpus before a competent tribunal. For, a citizen can never be adjudged guilty and punished, for a peaceable assertion of his rights. But, on the supposition ^that he submitted to the order of the legislature so far as to attend, and he was then required to answer interrogatories under oath ; if he declined to take the oath, this of itself could be no contempt, unless an impeachment was then actually pending, and he was summoned to give testimony, or unless the legislature has a legal authority to resolve itself into a court of inquisition. For, it will hardly be pretended that, if the legislature should see fit to sit as a court, that they have authority to act in an arbitrary manner, and differently from all the regular tribunals of justice. If, however, the legislature should assume to themselves such a capacity, the person summoned should at least be informed that they are acting as a grand jury, in which case the person summoned to give testimony must submit to take the regular oath. If the editor were then asked, if he knew the author of a certain communication in his newspaper, and answered in the affirmative, and were asked again, who was the author, and refused to answer the question, he could never be punished for a contempt in such refusal, so long as he did not deny that he was the author himself, because the constitution protects every man from all attempts to compel him to give testimony against himself. But, if the legislature were then sitting as a grand inquisition, if the editor should once deny that he was the author himself, he would be guilty of a contempt if he did not answer and tell the name of the author, if he knew it, and were required to do so.

It has been suggested already, that where an individual is attached for a contempt, it is an indulgence shown to him to permit him to clear it by answering interrogatories under oath. It would be a perversion or misuse of this course, to use it as a means of proving the contempt upon the person in custody. It is true, if the act constituting the contempt, is clearly proved by other testimony, and the person in custody refuses to give such explanations under oath in answer to interrogatories, as would show there was no contempt in fact, he will be considered as guilty of the contempt; yet, if there is no satisfactory evidence of such act, he may, if he please, refuse to answer any interrogatories in relation to the subject. He may let the testimony against him remain as it is, without attempting to explain it away, and if there is not sufficient, the constitution will protect him from being compelled to confess under oath, which would be the consequence of answering interrogatories. As a matter of prudence, therefore, a person brought before the legislature for examination, should, before he takes any oath, ascertain for what purpose the oath is to be taken and the examination made, and whether his testimony is wanted to bring others to justice, or whether he is called on to answer interrogatories in relation to some supposed or alleged contempt in himself. To decline to take the oath until he is satisfied in relation to these particulars, ought not to be considered as a contempt, because it may be necessary for the protection of his own legal rights.

In the case put, if an editor is asked the single question, who is the author of a certain communication, and answers, that he does not consider himself bound to answer the question, without more, it seems difficult to make a contempt of it; for, if he is the author, he is protected by the constitution from having the confession extorted from him, and it would be absurd to suppose, that in order to avail himself of this protection, he must first confess his guilt to the court, to show that his case comes within it, by intimating that he is not bound to incriminate himself, &c. These few remarks are made here, because an individual taken unawares, or at short notice, and brought before the legislature, can hardly be expected to have the same self-possession, as when standing before the common tribunals of justice, with retained counsel, perhaps the best guardian of his civil rights ever devised, sitting by his side.

In the case of Anderson v. Dunn, it was held that either house of congress may arrest, at any place within the United States, any person who is guilty of a contempt to them, during their session, and imprison the offender until the end of it. See 6 Wheat. 232. The offence in this case, did not consist in occasioning any disturbance or direct interruption to the deliberations of congress, but, in offering a bribe by letter to one of the members. The power claimed and exercised therefore, was not limited to such direct contempts as might be offered to the house in their presence, but was extended to acts done out of the house, and where the offender might be at the utmost limits of the territory of the United States. It is impossible therefore but that such claim of power, where the occasions for its exercise, depending upon the mere discretion of congress to be ascertained by a vote, are indefinite and wholly unascertained by law, must excite great jealousy. For, in the first place, any individual may be brought from any part of the United States, in the custody of an officer, for any act whatever, which either house of congress may consider to be a contempt; and if an offer of a bribe to a single member is a contempt, what is to prevent the application of a similar principle, to other acts committed upon individual members? It has never been contended, that a libel on a member of the legislature is a contempt to the whole legislature, and yet it is not impossible, that some legislatures may vote it to be so. But suppose congress should see fit to consider some severe animadversions on their political management, as a contempt offered to them, will it be contended, that they have a right to take the offender into custody from a distant part of the United States, to be tried before themselves, and punished by imprisonment during the sitting of congress, when the constitution guaranties to all persons accused, 1. a right to a speedy and public trial, 2. by an impartial jury, 3. of the state and district, wherein the crime shall have been committed? Certainly, if congress has this power, all these safeguards, provided by the constitution for the liberty of the citizens, become wholly unavailing. For, if congress have a right to punish an act by imprisonment, then such act must be a crime, and the party cannot legally be punished without a legal trial. But, as congress may sit with closed doors whenever they see fit, if they try the accused in this manner, he cannot with propriety be said to have a public trial. The constitution guaranties an impartial jury; but, in this case, the contempt is alleged to be committed against congress, yet the members are to sit in judgment on it, both as a jury though hardly an impartial one, to ascertain the commission of the crime, and afterwards as judges to award the punishment of imprisonment. The constitution guaranties a trial in the state or district where the crime is committed; yet, in this case, unless the crime is committed within the district of Columbia, it is possible that the accused party may be tried a thousand, or even two thousand miles from such place.

Further; the constitution provides that no person shall be put in jeopardy of life or limb, more than once for the same offence; now it is true, there is but little danger that a man will be put in jeopardy of life or limb at all, in a trial for any species of contempt whatever; but it is wholly inconsistent with the benignity of the common law, or any law in use in the United States, that an individual should in any case be punished twice for the same act; i. e. for the sake of example, in the case referred to, that he should be liable to be punished for a communication in a newspaper, both as a contempt on the legislature, and as a libel on the same legislature—punished by the legislature for the contempt offered to them, and afterwards punished by a tribunal of justice, on an indictment for a libel on the same legislature. For, it will hardly be supposed, that a plea of former conviction made to the indictment, would be sustained by the commitment for a contempt by the legislature. It would be quite as great an absurdity, if he was punished for a contempt at Washington, and afterwards on a trial for a libel at Boston or New Orleans, should be acquitted of the charge, by giving the truth in evidence. It is true, Mr. Justice Johnson, in delivering his opinion in Anderson v. Dunn, observes, that ‘ the most absolute tyranny could not subsist, where men cannot be entrusted with power because they might abuse it; and much less a government, which has no other basis than the sound morals, moderation and good sense of those who compose it;’ 6 Wheat. 232. But this will hardly hold as a sufficient reason, why congress should be considered as entrusted with implied powers, which are not necessary, from a mere confidence that such powers will not be abused. The true principle seems to be, that the people have entrusted congress with whatever powers they judged expedient, in the constitution of the United States. Congress therefore may exercise all powers expressly bestowed on them by that compact, and all such other powers, as are absolutely necessary to the exercise of those which are expressly bestowed, but no other powers whatever. The power to punish for contempts, in the extended view we have taken of it, is neither expressly given to congress in the constitution, nor is it necessary to the exercise of any powers which are expressly given. The legitimate conclusion then is, that congress can lawfully claim no such power. If it was intended that congress should extend their powers or privileges at discretion, why was it thought necessary to enumerate their powers and define their privileges in the constitution?

With regard to the powers of both houses of congress, as well as the state legislatures, in determining the extent of their own privileges, the remarks of Parsons, Ch. Jus. in the case of Coffin T. Coffin, in relation to the constitution of the state of Massachusetts, may be considered as applicable by analogy. He observes, ‘In this state we have a written constitution, formed by the people, in which they have defined, not only the powers, but the privileges of the house, either by express words or by necessary implication. A struggle for privileges in this state, would be a contest against the people, to wrest from them what they have not chosen to grant. And, it may be added, that the grant of privileges is a restraint on the rights of private citizens, which cannot further be restrained but by some constitutional law.’ He remarks further in that case, ‘if the house of which the defendant is a member, had proceeded against the plaintiff for a contempt in suing this action; whatever had been the result of its proceedings, this court could not have interfered, or granted any relief, until the sentence had been performed.’ It will be recollected, that the plaintiff recovered judgment in this action, and according to the very opinion from which the above sentence is quoted. It is also clear that, in the opinion of this learned judge, if the house of representatives had imprisoned the plaintiff for contempt in bringing his action for redress against one of their members, the supreme court would have had no right to interpose. But it is much to be questioned whether this can be law.

In the case of Queen v. Paty and others, Ld. Raym. 1103. Sal. 503, the defendants were brought into the court of king’s bench on a habeas corpus, having been committed to Newgate by the house of commons, for bringing an action in which they recovered, in contempt of what was alleged to be the privileges of the house of commons. Holt, Chief Justice, held, that the suit was no breach of the privileges of the house of commons, nor could their judgment make it so, nor conclude that court, (king’s bench) from determining the contrary. ‘When the house of commons,’ he observes,’ exceed their legal bounds and authority, their acts are wrongful, and cannot be justified, more than the acts of private men. There is no question but their authority is from the law, and as it is circumscribed, so it may be exceeded. To say, they are judges of their own authority, and nobody else, is to make their privileges to be as they would have them.’ This great judge however was overruled by the other judges. It was held, that the house of commons was a court, and higher than the king’s bench, and were exclusively the judges of their own privileges, &c. &c. But, however the law may be in England, it is believed, that under the constitution of the United States, as well as those of the several states, an act so arbitrary as that supposed by Chief Justice Parsons, would be decided to be illegal and void, by every supreme court in the union, and that either of them would not hesitate to assume jurisdiction and discharge the prisoner on a habeas corpus. Is the house of representatives above the law and the constitution? If they are not, then it is possible that they may commit a man to prison in violation of both. And shall it be endured, that a man shall be kept imprisoned within the United States in violation of law, for want of a tribunal of competent jurisdiction to release him?

It is true, that in ordinary cases, there would be but little danger, that congress would ever make an unwarrantable use of any powers, with which they might be entrusted, for the sake of oppressing an individual, and far less, that they would intentionally usurp power where none was intended to be given, with any such view. For, so long as an individual was not particularly out of favor with the people, the dread of doing an unpopular act would infallibly be sufficient, without any other consideration, to prevent any act of direct injustice or oppression, from being agreed on by a majority of any legislative assembly in a popular government. But what is to become of the rights of an individual who has no such protection? Suppose that he has rendered himself odious to the leaders of the prevailing party by opposition to their schemes. Suppose that he has rendered himself unpopular and hateful to the people, by resisting, what he may consider, their prejudices and erroneous opinions. Suppose that he has said something in disparagement of the great goddess Diana of the Ephesians, that came down from heaven; in any such case, if he may be brought from a distant part of the country for the contempt, to be tried before such a popular legislative body sitting as a court, what security can he have, that he may not fall a victim to political tinkers and coppersmiths?

It is not intended however to deny, that congress has full authority to do any act, which may be necessary to free their deliberations from disturbance or constraint of any kind. This power is absolutely necessary to a faithful discharge of their public duties, as well as the exercise of all powers expressly delegated to them in the constitution. For, it was well supposed, that the utmost freedom of observation, discussion and debate would be fully repaid, by the greater wisdom and prudence of all measures which congress might adopt. The constitution accordingly provides, that ‘for any speech or debate in either house,’ no senator or representative shall ‘be questioned in any other place ;’ the meaning of which obviously is, that he shall not be called to account for what he may have said in congress, either on a civil or criminal prosecution before any tribunal of justice; nor before any other legislative assembly, or public body having political power, as the legislature of any of the states; for, the common law is sufficient to protect him from being called to account by persons, having no lawful political power whatever.

If, however, either of the houses of congress should suffer its members to be threatened for any thing said in debate, or to be waylaid, and assaulted in going or returning, they would compromise their own dignity as well as the respect due to their constituents, in whom the national sovereignty undoubtedly rests in the last resort; and such forbearance on their part should be ascribed to anything, rather than to a want of authority to put a stop to such outrages. The reader will immediately perceive, that allusion is here made to the ferocious assaults, committed at different times during the present session of congress, on two of its members, by armed persons, in pursuance of threats previously given out by them, and the gross personal indignity offered to a third member of congress, by another individual, whose conduct in this instance alone, would suffice to show in what light he must be considered among civilized and respectable people. It must appear singular to reflecting persons, that congress could suppose that so mild a punishment as a gentle reprimand, which, whatever may be the case here, in fact is no punishment at all, except to those who have the feelings of gentlemen, or at least have some remains of character to preserve, would be sufficient to deter men who had made up their minds to gratify their vindictive feelings, at whatever risk of life from their brutal attempts. What is worse, there does not appear to be any sufficient grounds in law, for the proceedings of the house of representatives in this respect; for, the sentence of reprimand appears to be no less illegal, than the result shows, that it was ineffectual, when considered as a warning to others. One would naturally have supposed, that the proper course to be taken in any such case, until congress shall see fit to make provision in relation to the subject by law, would be, in the first place, as soon as complaint is made, to take the person accused into custody, and after hearing what he had to say, if he did not exculpate himself, to keep him imprisoned during the rest of the session, not, as a punishment to him; but, as a measure necessary to secure themselves from further annoyance by him. This would not at all interfere with a prosecution before the tribunals of justice, on an indictment for a breach of the peace, nor with any process against him, for the purpose of binding him over to his good behavior; in either of which cases, the house of representatives might, at their discretion, release the offender from their custody.

Continued inPART II; CHAPTER IV: Of the Law of Libel in relation to Public Officers, &c.

See the other parts of this series:
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; Division One
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; Division Two
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; The Social Compact
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Powers delegated to the General Government in the Federal Constitution
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Powers delegated to the State Governments
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Independence of the States
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The rights reserved to the people of the United States
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Of the right of suffrage and of elections
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Liberty of Speech and of the Press
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Power of Courts to punish for Contempts
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Law of Libel in relation to Public Officers
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The mode of obtaining redress for infringement of civil or political rights


One thought on “RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Power of Courts to punish for Contempts

  1. Pingback: RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The mode of obtaining redress for infringement of civil or political rights | Captain James Davis

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