Continuing Effect of a Congressional Subpoena Following the Adjournment of Congress

Headnotes: 

A congressional subpoena lacks present force and effect after the adjournment sine die of a Congress, and it therefore imposes no continuing duty to comply with its directives; similarly, it will not support the continued exercise by Congress of the power to punish for contempt.

Judicial construction of the procedure by which a congressional committee’s contempt citation is certified for prosecution under 2 U.S.C. § 192 indicates that it would require action by the whole House and not simply the Speaker if the contempt occurs while Congress is in session. Accordingly, if the contempt in this case were not reported to the House while it was still in session, or if the House failed to act on the resolution, the citation would die upon Congress’ adjournment and be of no further force and effect.

If a successor committee in the subsequent Congress brought a civil action to enforce the prior committee’s subpoena, its success might depend upon whether the court viewed the prior subpoena and refusal to comply as a historical fact whose validity could not now be adjudicated. This rationale would support an action for declaratory relief, but not one for injunctive relief.

Updated July 9, 2014