279 U.S. 263 (1929), 555, Sinclair v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 555
Citation:279 U.S. 263, 49 S.Ct. 268, 73 L.Ed. 692
Party Name:Sinclair v. United States
Case Date:April 08, 1929
Court:United States Supreme Court

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279 U.S. 263 (1929)

49 S.Ct. 268, 73 L.Ed. 692



United States

No. 555

United States Supreme Court

April 8, 1929

Argued February 18, 19, 1929



1. The chairman and any of the members of the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys of the Senate are empowered to administer oaths to witnesses before the committee. Rev.Stats. § 101. P. 291.

2. Rev.Stats. § 102, prescribing punishment for refusal to answer before congressional committees, includes witnesses who voluntarily appear without being summoned. P. 291.

3. While the power of inquiry of the respective houses of Congress is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function, it must be exerted with due regard for the rights of witnesses; a witness may rightfully refuse to answer where the bounds of the power are exceeded or where the questions asked are not pertinent to the matter under inquiry. McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135. P. 291.

4. A naval petroleum reserve, in charge of the Secretary of the Navy under the Act of June 4, 1920, 41 Stat. 12, was made the subject of an executive order purporting to give the administration and conservation of all oil and gas lands therein to the Secretary of the Interior under the supervision of the President. The two Secretaries, at the procurement of the defendant, leased lands in the reserve to a company of which he owned all the shares. Questions having arisen as to the legality and good faith of the lease and an attendant contract, and of others similar, and also as to the future policy of the government regarding such matters, the Senate, by resolutions, directed its committee to investigate the entire subject of such leases, with particular reference to the protection of the rights and equities of the United States and the preservation of its natural resources, to ascertain what, if any, other, or additional legislation might be advisable, and to report its findings and recommendations to the Senate. Congress, also, by joint resolution, reciting that the lease and contract were illegal and apparently fraudulent, directed the President to cause suit to be instituted for their cancellation, and to prosecute such other actions, civil or criminal, as were warranted. After suit had been begun against

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his company pursuant to this resolution, and while criminal action was impending against himself, the defendant appeared before the committee and was asked a question which sought the facts within his knowledge concerning a contract executed by him for his company to pay certain persons for a release of rights in lands embraced in his company's lease. Defendant refused to answer, not upon the ground of self-incrimination, but for the reason that the investigation and the question were unauthorized. He was prosecuted for contumacy, under Rev.Stats. § 102, and convicted.


(1) Neither the investigation authorized by the Senate's resolutions nor the question put by the committee related merely to the defendant's private affairs. P. 294.

(2) Under Art. IV, § 3 of the Constitution, Congress had plenary powers to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the naval reserves, and the Senate had power to delegate authority to its committee to investigate and report what had been and was being done by executive departments under the leasing Act, the Naval Oil Reserve Act, and the President's order in respect of the reserves, and to make any other inquiry concerning the public domain. P. 294.

(3) The validity of the lease and the means by which it had been obtained under existing law were subjects that properly might be investigated in order to determine what, if any, legislation was necessary or desirable in order to recover the leased lands or to safeguard other parts of the domain. P. 294.

(4) Neither the joint resolution directing legal proceedings nor the action taken under it operated to divest the Senate or the committee of further power to investigate the actual administration of the land laws; the authority of Congress, directly or through its committees, to require pertinent disclosures in aid of its own constitutional power is not abridged because the information sought to be elicited may also be of use in such suits. P. 295.

(5) A refusal of the committee to pass a motion that the examination of defendant should not relate to controversies pending in court, and the statement of one of the members that there was nothing else to examine him about, were not enough to show that the committee intended to depart from the purpose to ascertain whether additional legislation might be advisable. Investigation of the matters involved in suits brought, or to be brought, under the joint resolution might directly aid legislative action. P. 295.

(6) A resolution of the Senate, the purpose of which, as plainly shown by the context and circumstances, was to keep in force

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through the next session of Congress an earlier resolution empowering the committee to summon and swear witnesses, should not be denied that effect because of mistakes in its reference to the date and number of the earlier resolution. P. 295.

(7) The question propounded by the committee was pertinent to matters it was authorized to investigate, relating (a) to the right and equities of the United States as owner of the land leased to the defendant, and (b) to the effect of existing laws concerning oil and other mineral lands and the need for further legislation. P. 297.

5. In a prosecution for the offence of refusing to answer a question put to the accused as a witness before a committee of the Senate (R.S. § 102), the burden is upon the United States to show that the question was pertinent to a matter under investigation; any presumption of regularity in that regard is overcome by the presumption of innocence attending the accused at the trial. P. 296.

6. In a prosecution for refusal to answer a question before a committee of the Senate, it is the province of the court, and not of the jury, to decide whether the question was pertinent to the subjects covered by the Senate resolutions authorizing the committee's investigation. P. 298.

7. In such a prosecution, the fact that the accused acted in good faith on the advice of competent counsel in refusing to answer a question put by the committee is not a defense. P. 299.

8. A judgment imposing a single sentence on several counts of an indictment may be affirmed under one count without considering the others if the conviction as to that count be sustained and if the maximum punishment authorized for the offense charged in that count be not exceeded by the sentence. P. 299.


Review of a judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia sentencing the defendant, under Rev.Stats. § 102, for refusing to answer questions before a committee of the Senate. The case was appealed from the trial court to the Court of Appeals of the District. That court certified certain questions for instruction, and this Court, by order, brought up the entire record.

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BUTLER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant was found guilty of violating R.S. § 102, U.S.C. Tit. 2, § 192. He was sentenced to jail for three months and to pay a fine of $500. The case was taken to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia; that court certified to this Court certain questions of law upon which it desired instruction for the proper decision of the case. We directed the entire record to be sent up. Judicial Code, § 239, U.S.C. Tit. 28, § 346.

Section 102 follows:

Every person who, having been summoned as a witness by the authority of either house of Congress, to give testimony or to produce papers upon any matter under inquiry before either house, or any

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committee of either house of Congress, willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100, and imprisonment in a common jail for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.

By way of inducement, the indictment set forth the circumstances leading up to the offense which in brief substance are as follows:

For many years, there had been progressive diminution of petroleum necessary for the operation of naval vessels; consequently, the government was interested to conserve the supply and especially that in the public domain.

Pursuant to the Act of June 25, 1910, 36 Stat. 847, the President, by executive orders dated September 2, 1912, December 13, 1912, and April 30, 1915, ordered that certain oil and gas-bearing lands in California and Wyoming be held for the exclusive use of the Navy. These areas were designated Naval Petroleum Reserves 1, 2, and 3, respectively.

The Act of February 25, 1920, 41 Stat. 437, provided for the leasing of public lands containing oil and other minerals. And the Act of June 4, 1920, 41 Stat. 812, 813, directed the Secretary of the Navy of take possession of all properties in the naval reserves "on which there are no pending claims or applications for permits or leases under the" Leasing Act of February 25, 1920 "or pending applications for United States patent under any law," to conserve, develop, use, and operate the same by contract, lease, or otherwise, and to use, store, exchange or sell the oil and gas products thereof for the benefit of the United States. And it was declared that the rights of any claimants under the Leasing Act were not thereby adversely affected.

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