In the United States, when someone is held in contempt of congress, the cases tend to be referred to the DoJ (at least since 1935).

However, in recent memory, there have been a couple cases where Attorneys General have been held in contempt or at least threatened with contempt. The first example I know of is when Eric Holder was held in contempt with the Fast and Furious scandal and another recent example is Nunes' threat of holding Jefferson Sessions in contempt over not following a suppoena. This leads me to wonder...


What happens when someone from the DoJ is held in contempt of Congress?

  • 1
    This question is suddenly relevant again, as the House is threatening to find Bill Barr in contempt for not providing the full Mueller Report.
    – Barmar
    May 7, 2019 at 13:35

2 Answers 2


Contempt of Congress is typically a referral to the US Attorney of the District of Columbia and the US Department of Justice. There is nothing particularly special about a DOJ employee being held in contempt - the only notable feature is that they are typically recused and not allowed to work on their case as a government employee.

Unless Congress uses its inherent contempt powers (which are very serious - it allows them to temporarily imprison those held in contempt), this pawns off the choice to the US Attorney of the District of Columbia and the US Department of Justice.

The US Attorney for the District of Columbia

US attorneys have full power to file charges and bring matters before a grand jury. They technically serve at the leisure of the President under the Department of Justice but there is a strong tradition against the President influencing their decisions (I should note here that some legal scholars argue that an employee of the President cannot be compelled by the legislative branch to take action against the President and that doing so violates the separation of powers). Should they file charges that are upheld in court, the person held in contempt will be imprisoned for 1-12 months and fined $100-$1000.

In the case of the Eric Holder incident, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia declined to file charges (there was some questions about this decision that I'll cover below).

The Department of Justice The US Attorney for the District of Columbia serves under the Department of Justice which will always maintain a united front because it acts as one body. That means if the US Attorney for the District of Columbia asserts that charges should be filed and the Attorney General (or, if they are recused, the highest ranking official who is not recused) disagrees, that dispute will be settled internally. It may end with the US Attorney resigning.

In the case of the Eric Holder incident, the US Deputy Attorney General sent a letter to the Speaker of the House stating that the DOJ will not be filing charges against Eric Holder because of a specific executive privilege issue relating to the case. This was announced before the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, at the time, Ronald Manchen announced his decision, raising questions about Manchen's independence. That said, Manchen later stated that he concurred with this decision.


Following a contempt citation, the person cited is arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms for the House or Senate, brought to the floor of the chamber, held to answer charges by the presiding officer, and then subjected to punishment as the chamber may dictate (usually imprisonment for punishment reasons, imprisonment for coercive effect, or release from the contempt citation).


So, for "Inherent Contempt", you don't even need DoJ

There's also Senate civil action but it seems far more limited.

  • 1
    the idea that Legislature can arrest someone does seem to violate separation of powers but IANAL and don't even play one on Internet
    – user4012
    May 11, 2018 at 16:43
  • I'm pretty sure congress doesn't have its own jail, what does the sergeant-at-arms actually do with the prisoner? I would have assumed he typically hands the offender to the DoJ...
    – user9389
    May 11, 2018 at 16:51
  • 1
    This partly answers my question for Inherent Contempt, but not for other forms of Contempt.
    – isakbob
    May 11, 2018 at 18:11
  • 1
    @BenjaminSarkis: Contempt of (Congress/Court) are special criminal offenses that are purely dealt with by those branches. Typically, crime is policed by the Executive. Congress and the Judiciariary both provide oversight duties on the Executive's job performance as well as each others, so contempt charges are usually dealt with entirely in the branch of government they originated from. They usually are used to force compliance on lawful orders from those branches, including failure to comply.
    – hszmv
    May 11, 2018 at 19:39
  • 2
    As @BenjaminSarkis stated, inherent contempt is not the only form of contempt and only including it in your answer dramatizes what can be a very banal procedure.
    – Ben Cooper
    May 12, 2018 at 19:53

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