United States v. Bryan

Decision Date08 May 1950
Docket NumberNo. 99,99
Citation339 U.S. 323,94 L.Ed. 884,70 S.Ct. 724
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 339 U.S. 991, 70 S.Ct. 1018.

Mr. Philip B. Perlman, Sol. Gen., Washington, D.C., for the United states.

Messrs. O. John Rogge, Washington, D.C., and Benedict Wolf, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent is the executive secretary of an organization known as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (hereinafter referred to as the association) and as such has custody of its records. Prior to April 4, 1946, the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives, which was conducting an investigation into the activities of the association, had attempted without success to procure these records from respondent and from the chairman of the association's executive board, Dr. Edward K. Barsky. On March 29, 1946, the Committee issued subpoenas to each of the known members of the executive board summoning them to appear in the Committee's room on April 4, 1946, at 10 a.m., to testify and produce certain specified records of the association, and an identical subpoena directed to the association by name was served upon respondent Bryan in her official capacity.

Bryan and the members of the executive board appeared before the Committee at the date and time set out in the subpoenas and in response thereto. Each person so summoned failed to produce any of the records specified in the subpoenas. The members of the executive board made identical statements in which each declared that he or she did not have possession, custody or control of the records; that Miss Bryan, the executive secretary, did. Respondent admitted that the records were in her possession but refused to comply with the subpoena because 'after consulting with counsel (she) came to the conclusion that the subpoena was not valid' because the Committee had no constitutional right to demand the books and records. Asked whether the executive board supported her action, she refused to answer because she did not think the question pertinent.

The Committee on Un-American Activities then submitted its report and resolution to the House. Setting out at length the Committee's attempts to procure the records of the association, the report concludes: 'The willful and deliberate refusal of Helen R. Bryan and the members of the executive board of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee as named herein to produce the books, papers, and records called for in the subpoenas deprives your committee of evidence necessary in the conduct of its investigation of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rufugee Committee, which evidence is pertinent to the said investigation and places the said persons in contempt of the House of Representatives of the United States.'1

The resolution directing the Speaker to certify the Committee's report to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia for legal action was approved by the full House after debate.2

Respondent was indicted for violation of R.S. § 102,3 in that she had failed to produce the records called for in the subpoenas and had thereby wilfully made default. Act the trial she contended, inter alia, that she was not guilty of wilful default because a quorum of the Committee on Un-American Activities had not been present when she appeared on the return day. However, the trial court withdrew that issue from the jury's consideration by instructing the jury 'as a matter of law, that the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives was a validly constituted committee of the Congress, and was at the time of the defendant's appear- ance.' Respondent was found guilty, 72 F.Supp. 58, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one judge dissenting, reversed the judgment on the ground that the presence of a quorum of the Committee at the hearing on April 4, 1946, was a material question of fact in the alleged offense and should have been submitted to the jury. 84 U.S.App.D.C. 394, 174 F.2d 525. We granted a writ of certiorari, 338 U.S. 846, 70 S.Ct. 87, to consider this important question affecting the procedures of congressional committees.

First. R.S. § 102 was enacted in 1857. Its purpose, as stated by its sponsors, was to avoid the procedural difficulties which had been experienced by the House of Representatives when person cited for contempt of the House were brought before its bar to show cause why they should not be committed, and, more important, to permit the imprisonment of a contemnor beyond the expiration of the current session of Congress.4 Transmission of the fact of the commission of a contempt to the prosecuting authority is made under the Seal of the House of Senate by the Speaker or President of the Senate.5 The judicial proceedings are intended as an alternative method of vindicating the authority of Congress to compel the disclosure of facts which are needed in the fulfillment of the legislative function. In re Chapman, 1897, 166 U.S. 661, 671—672, 17 S.Ct. 677, 681, 41 L.Ed. 1154; Jurney v. MacCracken, 1935, 294 U.S. 125, 151, 55 S.Ct. 375, 379, 79 L.Ed. 802.

'Default' is, of course, a failure to comply with the summons. In this case we may assume, without deciding, that the subpoena served on respondent required her to produce the records of the association before the Committee on Un-American Activities, sitting as a commit- tee.6 Upon that assumption, respondent takes the position that, absent a quorum, the Committee was without power to receive the records on the return day; that she cannot be guilty of a default in failing to produce papers before an 'agency organizationally defective,' which, for that reason, 'cannot be obstructed.' Respondent does not and cannot, in view of the jury's verdict, contest the finding that she deliberately and intentionally refused to produce the papers called for in the subpoena. Her contention is that a quorum of the Committee was required to meet to witness her refusal. Reliance is placed upon certain precedents of the House of Representatives, which hold that a committee report may be challenged in the House on the ground that a quorum of the committee was not present when the report was approved, and upon this Court's recent decision in Christoffel v. United States, 1949, 338 U.S. 84, 69 S.Ct. 1447.

The Christoffel case is inapposite. For that decision, which involved a prosecution for perjury before a congressional committee, rests in part upon the proposition that the applicable perjury statute requires that a 'competent tribunal' be present when the false statement is made. There is no such requirement in R.S. § 102. It does not contemplate some affirmative act which is made punishable only if performed before a competent tribunal, but an intentional failure to testify or produce papers, however the contumacy is manifested. Respondent attempts to equate R.S. § 102 with the perjury statute considered in the Christoffel case by contending that it applies only to the refusal to testify or produce papers before a committee—i.e., in the presence of a quorum of the committee. But the statute is not so limited. In the first place, it refers to the wilful failure by any person 'to give testimony or to produce papers upon any matter under inquiry before * * * any committee of either House of Congress,' not to the failure to testify before a congressional committee. And the fact that appearance before a committee is not an essential element of the offense is further emphasized by additional language in the statute, which, after defining wilful default in the terms set out above, continues, 'or who, having oppeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, * * *.' (Emphasis supplied.)

It is clear that R.S. § 102 is designed to punish the obstruction of inquiries in which the Houses of Congress or their committees are engaged. If it is shown that such an inquiry is, in fact, obstructed by the intentional withholding of documents, it is unimportant whether the subpoenaed person proclaims his refusal to respond before the full committee, sends a telegram to the chairman, or simply stays away from the hearing on the return day. His statements or actions are merely evidence from which a jury might infer an intent to default. A proclaimed refusal to respond, as in this case, makes that intent plain. But it would hardly be less plain if the witness embarked on a voyage to Europe on the day before his scheduled appearance before the committee.

Of course a witness may always change his mind. A default does not mature until the return date of the subpoena, whatever the previous manifestations of intent to default. But when the Government introduced evidence in this case that respondent had been validly served with a lawful subpoena directing her to produce records within her custody and control, and that on the day set out in the subpoena she intentionally failed to comply, it made out a prima facie case of wilful default.

Second. It is argued, however, that even if the Government is not required to prove presence of a quorum affirmatively, lack of a quorum is a defense raising material questions of fact which should have been submitted to the jury. The theory is that if the subpoena required production of the records before the Committee on Un-American Activities qua committee, respondent could not have complied with the subpoena in the absence of a quorum had she wished to do so, and therefore her default is not wilful, albeit deliberate and intentional. While she did not introduce any direct evidence at the trial, respondent appropriately raised the defense by cross-examination and by her motions, requests and objections.

Ordinarily, one charged with contempt of court for failure to comply with a court order makes a complete defense by proving that ...

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