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CRS Annotated Constitution

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Protection of Witnesses: Pertinency and Related Matters.—A witness appearing before a congressional committee is entitled to require of the committee a demonstration of its authority to inquire with regard to his activities and a showing that the questions asked of him are pertinent to the committee’s area of inquiry. A congressional committee possesses only those powers delegated to it by its parent body. The enabling resolution that has given it life also contains the grant and limitations of the committee’s power.198 In Watkins v. United States,199 Chief Justice Warren cautioned that “[b]roadly drafted and loosely worded . . . resolutions can leave tremendous latitude to the discretion of the investigators. The more vague the committee’s charter is, the greater becomes the possibility that the committee’s specific actions are not in conformity with the will of the parent House of Congress.” Speaking directly of the authorizing resolution, which created the House Un–American Activities Committee,200 the Chief Justice thought it “difficult to imagine a less explicit authorizing resolution.”201 But the far–reaching implications of these remarks were circumscribed by Barenblatt v. United States,202 in which the[p.97]Court, “[g]ranting the vagueness of the Rule,” noted that Congress had long since put upon it a persuasive gloss of legislative history through practice and interpretation, which, read with the enabling resolution, showed that “the House has clothed the Un–American Activities Committee with pervasive authority to investigate Communist activities in this country.”203 “[W]e must conclude that [the Committee’s] authority to conduct the inquiry presently under consideration is unassailable, and that . . . the Rule cannot be said to be constitutionally infirm on the score of vagueness.”204

Because of the usual precision with which authorizing resolutions have generally been drafted, few controversies have arisen about whether a committee has projected its inquiry into an area not sanctioned by the parent body.205 But in United States v. Rumely,206 the Court held that the House of Representatives, in authorizing a select committee to investigate lobbying activities devoted to the promotion or defeat of legislation, did not thereby intend to empower the committee to probe activities of a lobbyist that were unconnected with his representations directly to Congress but rather designed to influence public opinion by distribution of literature. Consequently the committee was without authority to compel the representative of a private organization to disclose the names of all who had purchased such literature in quantity.207

Still another example of lack of proper authority is Gojack v. United States,208 in which the Court reversed a contempt citation because there was no showing that the parent committee had delegated to the subcommittee before whom the witness had appeared the authority to make the inquiry and neither had the full committee specified the area of inquiry.

Watkins v. United States,209 remains the leading case on pertinency, although it has not the influence on congressional investigations that some hoped and some feared in the wake of its[p.98]announcement. When questioned by a Subcommittee of the House Un–American Activities Committee, Watkins refused to supply the names of past associates, who, to his knowledge, had terminated their membership in the Communist Party and supported his noncompliance by, inter alia, contending that the questions were unrelated to the work of the Committee. Sustaining the witness, the Court emphasized that inasmuch as a witness by his refusal exposes himself to a criminal prosecution for contempt, he is entitled to be informed of the relation of the question to the subject of the investigation with the same precision as the due process clause requires of statutes defining crimes.210

For ascertainment of the subject matter of an investigation, the witness might look, noted the Court, to several sources, including (1) the authorizing resolution, (2) the resolution by which the full committee authorized the subcommittee to proceed, (3) the introductory remarks of the chairman or other members, (4) the nature of the proceedings, (5) the chairman’s response to the witness when the witness objects to the line of question on grounds of pertinency.211 Whether a precise delineation of the subject matter of the investigation in but one of these sources would satisfy the requirements of due process was left unresolved, since the Court ruled that in this case all of them were deficient in providing Watkins with the guidance to which he was entitled. The sources had informed Watkins that the questions were asked in a course of investigation of something that ranged from a narrow inquiry into Communist infiltration into the labor movement to a vague and unlimited inquiry into “subversion and subversive propaganda.”212

By and large, the subsequent cases demonstrated that Watkins did not represent a determination by the Justices to restrain broadly the course of congressional investigations, though several contempt citations were reversed on narrow holdings. But with regard to pertinency, the implications of Watkins were held in check and, without amending its rules or its authorizing resolution, the Un–American Activities Committee was successful in convincing a ma[p.99]jority of the Court that its subsequent investigations were authorized and that the questions asked of recalcitrant witnesses were pertinent to the inquiries.213

Thus, in Barenblatt v. United States,214 the Court concluded that the history of the Un–American Activities Committee’s activities, viewed in conjunction with the Rule establishing it, evinced clear investigatory authority to inquire into Communist infiltration in the field of education, an authority with which the witness had shown familiarity. Additionally, the opening statement of the chairman had pinpointed that subject as the nature of the inquiry that day and the opening witness had testified on the subject and had named Barenblatt as a member of the Communist Party at the University of Michigan. Thus, pertinency and the witness’ knowledge of the pertinency of the questions asked him was shown. Similarly, in Wilkinson v. United States,215 the Court held that when the witness was apprised at the hearing that the Committee was empowered to investigate Communist infiltration of the textile industry in the South, that it was gathering information with a view to ascertaining the manner of administration and need to amend various laws directed at subversive activities, that Congress hitherto had enacted many of its recommendations in this field, and[p.100]that it was possessed of information about his Party membership, he was notified effectively that a question about that affiliation was relevant to a valid inquiry. A companion case was held to be controlled by Wilkinson,216 and in both cases the majority rejected the contention that the Committee inquiry was invalid because both Wilkinson and Braden, when they were called, were engaged in organizing activities against the Committee.217

Related to the cases discussed in this section are those cases requiring that congressional committees observe strictly their own rules. Thus, in Yellin v. United States,218 a contempt conviction was reversed because the Committee had failed to observe its rule providing for a closed session if a majority of the Committee believed that a witness’ appearance in public session might unjustly injure his reputation. The Court ruled that the Committee had ignored the rule when it subpoenaed the witness for a public hearing and then in failing to consider as a Committee his request for a closed session.219

Finally, it should be noted that the Court has blown hot and cold on the issue of a quorum as a prerequisite to a valid contempt citation and that no firm statement of a rule is possible, although it seems probable that ordinarily no quorum is necessary.220


198 United States v. Rumely, 345 U.S. 41, 44 (1953).
199 354 U.S. 178, 201 (1957).
200 The Committee has since been abolished.
201 Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 202 (1957).
202 360 U.S. 109 (1959).
203 Id., 117–118.
204 Id., 122–123. But note that in Stamler v. Willis, 415 F. 2d 1365 (7th Cir., 1969), cert. den., 399 U.S. 929 (1970), the court ordered to trial a civil suit contesting the constitutionality of the Rule establishing the Committee on allegations of overbreadth and overbroad application, holding that Barenblatt did not foreclose the contention.
205 But see Tobin v. United States, 306 F. 2d 270 (D.C.Cir.), cert. den., 371 U.S. 902 (1962).
206 345 U.S. 41 (1953).
207 The Court intimated that if the authorizing resolution did confer such power upon the committee, the validity of the resolution would be subject to doubt on First Amendment principles. Justices Black and Douglas would have construed the resolution as granting the authority and would have voided it under the First Amendment. Id., 48 (concurring opinion).
208 384 U.S. 702 (1966).
209 354 U.S. 178 (1957).
210 Id., 208–209.
211 Id., 209–215.
212 Ibid. See also Sacher v. United States, 356 U.S. 576 (1958), a per curiam reversal of a contempt conviction on the ground that the questions did not relate to a subject “within the subcommittee’s scope of inquiry,” arising out of a hearing pertaining to a recantation of testimony by a witness in which the inquiry drifted into a discussion of legislation barring Communists from practice at the federal bar, the unanswered questions being asked then; and Flaxer v. United States, 358 U.S. 147 (1958), a reversal for refusal to produce membership lists because of an ambiguity in the committee’s ruling on the time of performance; and Scull v. Virginia ex rel. Committee, 359 U.S. 344 (1959), a reversal on a contempt citation before a state legislative investigating committee on pertinency grounds.
213 Notice should be taken, however, of two cases which, though decided four and five years after Watkins, involved persons who were witnesses before the Un–American Activities Committee either shortly prior to or shortly following Watkins’ appearance and who were cited for contempt before the Supreme Court decided Watkins’ case.
In Deutch v. United States, 367 U.S. 456 (1961), involving an otherwise cooperative witness who had refused to identify certain persons with whom he had been associated at Cornell in Communist Party activities, the Court agreed that Deutch had refused on grounds of moral scruples to answer the questions and had not challenged them as not pertinent to the inquiry, but the majority ruled that the Government had failed to establish at trial the pertinency of the questions, thus vitiating the conviction. Justices Frankfurter, Clark, Harlan, and Whittaker dissented, arguing that any argument on pertinency had been waived but in any event thinking it had been established. Id., 472, 475.
In Russell v. United States, 369 U.S. 749 (1962), the Court struck down contempt convictions for insufficiency of the indictments. Indictments, which merely set forth the offense in the words of the contempt statute, the Court asserted, in alleging that the unanswered questions were pertinent to the subject under inquiry but not identifying the subject in detail, are defective because they do not inform defendants what they must be prepared to meet and do not enable courts to decide whether the facts alleged are sufficient to support convictions. Justice Stewart for the Court noted that the indicia of subject matter under inquiry were varied and contradictory, thus necessitating a precise governmental statement of particulars. Justices Harlan and Clark in dissent contended that it was sufficient for the Government to establish pertinency at trial and noted that no objections relating to pertinency had been made at the hearings. Id., 781, 789–793. Russell was cited in the per curiam reversals in Grumman v. United States, 370 U.S. 288 (1962), and Silber v. United States, 370 U.S. 717 (1962).
214 360 U.S. 109 (1959).
215 365 U.S. 399 (1961).
216 Braden v. United States, 365 U.S. 431 (1961).
217 The majority denied that the witness’ participation in a lawful and protected course of action, such as petitioning Congress to abolish the Committee, limited the Committee’s right of inquiry. “[W]e cannot say that, simply because the petitioner at the moment may have been engaged in lawful conduct, his Communist activities in connection therewith could not be investigated. The subcommittee had reasonable ground to suppose that the petitioner was an active Communist Party member, and that as such he possessed information that would substantially aid it in its legislative investigation. As the Barenblatt opinion makes clear, it is the nature of the Communist activity involved, whether the momentary conduct is legitimate or illegitimate politically, that establishes the Government’s overbalancing interest.” Wilkinson v. United States, 365 U.S. 399, 414 (1961). In both cases, the dissenters, Chief Justice Warren and Justices Black, Douglas, and Brennan argued that the Committee action was invalid because it was intended to harass persons who had publicly criticized committee activities. Id., 415, 423, 429.
218 374 U.S. 109 (1963).
219 Failure to follow its own rules was again an issue in Gojack v. United States, 384 U.S. 702 (1966), in which the Court noted that while a committee rule required the approval of a majority of the Committee before a “major” investigation was initiated, such approval had not been sought before a Subcommittee proceeded.
220 In Christoffel v. United States, 338 U.S. 84 (1949), the Court held that a witness can be found guilty of perjury only where a quorum of the committee is present at the time the perjury is committed; it is not enough to prove that a quorum was present when the hearing began. But in United States v. Bryan, 339 U.S. 323 (1950), the Court ruled that a quorum was not required under the statute punishing refusal to honor a valid subpoena issued by an authorized committee.
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