Historical Highlights

The House Holds a U.S. Attorney in Contempt

June 26, 1916
The House Holds a U.S. Attorney in Contempt Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Robert B. Gordon served as a Member of Congress from Ohio in the 56th and 57th Congresses (1899–1903) before he became Sergeant at Arms in 1913.
On this date, House Sergeant at Arms Robert Gordon arrested H. Snowden Marshall—the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York—after the House voted to charge Marshall with contempt. The months-long feud began when a federal grand jury indicted Representative Frank Buchanan of Illinois as a result of Marshall’s investigation into whether Germany—America’s soon-to-be enemy during World War I—was secretly funding an organization called Labor’s National Peace Council. Buchanan, the labor council’s former president, was charged with “conspiring to foment strikes in American munition factories as part of a campaign, financed by the German government, to check the exportation of munitions to the entente allies.” Soon after, on December 14, 1915, Buchanan introduced articles of impeachment against Marshall, accusing him of corruption and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House referred Buchanan’s measure to a special subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee that had been granted subpoena powers. During the subcommittee investigation, the New York Times published comments from the district attorney’s office claiming that the House investigation was being conducted in bad faith to delay Marshall’s own investigation of “pro-German partisans.” The very next day, the subcommittee questioned the author of the Times article—journalist Leonard Holme—about his sources. When Holme refused to reveal them, the subcommittee directed the Sergeant at Arms to arrest him. After U.S. Marshals declined to take custody of Holme, he promptly returned to the subcommittee and underwent a second round of questioning. News of Holme’s arrest infuriated Marshall, who wrote the House an angry letter denouncing the subcommittee’s actions, and offering “to resign if you can indicate anything I ever did that remotely approximates the lawless tyranny of your order of arrest of Mr. Holme.” The House responded by passing a resolution declaring Marshall’s letter to be a “breach of the privileges” of the House, charging him with contempt, and authorizing his arrest. Gordon arrested Marshall at his New York office but he was not in custody for long, nor was he transported to Washington. Marshall quickly was granted a writ of habeas corpus and freed; he appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April 1917, the court ruled in Marshall v. Gordon that the Constitution did not provide Congress with the power to punish individuals unless they “prevent or obstruct the discharge of legislative duty.” The court, in determining that Marshall’s letter did not impede the House’s ability to legislate, ruled that the House had no right to punish him for it.

Related Highlight Subjects

Blog Post

Historical Highlight

January 01, 1796

A Breach of Privileges

Fast Facts

The Constitution says nothing about congressional investigations and oversight, but the authority to conduct investigations is implied since Congress possesses “all legislative powers.” The Supreme Court determined that the framers intended for Congress to seek out information when crafting or reviewing legislation.

More >