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MARSHALL V. GORDON, 243 U. S. 521 (1917)

U.S. Supreme Court

Marshall v. Gordon, 243 U.S. 521 (1917)

Marshall v. Gordon

No. 606

Argued December 11, 12, 1916

Decided April 23, 1917

243 U.S. 521


Appellant, while United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, conducted a grand jury investigation which led to the indictment of a member of the House of Representatives. Acting on charges of misfeasance and nonfeasance made by the member against appellant in part before the indictment and renewed with additions afterward, the House by resolution directed its Judiciary Committee to make inquiry and report concerning appellant's liability to impeachment. Such inquiry being in progress through a subcommittee, appellant addressed to the subcommittee's chairman and gave to the press a letter, charging the subcommittee with

Page 243 U. S. 522

an endeavor to probe into and frustrate the action of the grand jury, and couched in terms calculated to arouse the indignation of the members of that committee and those of the House generally. Thereafter, appellant was arrested in New York by the sergeant-at-arms pursuant to a resolution of the House whereby the letter was characterized as defamatory and insulting and as tending to bring that body into public contempt and ridicule, and whereby appellant, in writing and publishing such letter, was adjudged to be in contempt of the House in violating its privileges, honor, and dignity. He applied for habeas corpus.


(1) That the proceedings concerning which the alleged contempt was committed were not impeachment proceedings.

(2) That, whether they were impeachment proceedings or not, the House was without power by its own action, as distinct from such action as might be taken under criminal laws, to arrest or punish for such acts as were committed by appellant.

No express power to punish for contempt was granted to the House of Representatives save the power to deal with contempts committed by its own members. Constitution, Art. I, § 5.

The possession by Congress of the commingled legislative and judicial authority to punish for contempts which was exerted by the House of Commons is at variance with the view and tendency existing in this country when the Constitution was adopted, as evidenced by the manner in which the subject was treated in many state constitutions, beginning at or about that time and continuing thereafter.

Such commingling of powers would be destructive of the basic constitutional distinction between legislative, executive, and judicial power, and repugnant to limitations which the Constitution fixes expressly; hence there is no warrant whatever for implying such a dual power in aid of other powers expressly granted to Congress.

The House has implied power to deal directly with contempt so far as is necessary to preserve and exercise the legislative authority expressly granted.

Being, however, a power of self-preservation, a means and not an end, the power does not extend to infliction of punishment, as such; it is a power to prevent acts which, in and of themselves, inherently, prevent or obstruct the discharge of legislative duty and to compel the doing of those things which are essential to the performance of the legislative functions.

As pointed out in Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204, this implied power, in its exercise, is limited to imprisonment during the session of the body affected by the contempt.

Page 243 U. S. 523

The authority does not cease when the act complained of has been committed, but includes the right to determine, in the use of legitimate and fair discretion, how far from the nature and character of the act there is necessity for repression to prevent immediate recurrence, i.e., the continued existence of the interference or obstruction to the exercise of legislative power.

In such case, unless there be manifest an absolute disregard of discretion, and a mere exertion of arbitrary power coming within the reach of constitutional limitations, the exercise of the authority is not subject to judicial interference.

The power is the same in quantity and quality whether exerted on behalf of the impeachment powers or of the others to which it is ancillary.

The legislative power to provide by criminal laws for the prosecution and punishment of wrongful acts -- not here involved.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 243 U. S. 530

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