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Kilbourn v. Thompson

Significance, An Uncooperative Witness, Preserving The Separation Of Powers, Congressional Immunity, Samuel R. Lowery, African American Lawyer


Hallett Kilbourn


John G. Thompson, Michael C. Kerr, John M. Glover, Jeptha D. New, Burwell P. Lewis, A. Herr Smith

Plaintiff's Claim

Kilbourn objected to the fact that he had been called before a committee of Congress, and, refusing to answer questions, had been jailed for contempt of Congress. He brought suit against Thompson, the sergeant-at-arms, as well as against the five members of the congressional committee that had called him.

Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff

Charles A. Eldredge, Enoch Totten, Noah L. Jeffries

Chief Defense Lawyers

Walter H. Smith, Frank H. Hurd

Justices for the Court

Salmon Portland Chase, Nathan Clifford, Stephen Johnson Field, John Marshall Harlan I, Ward Hunt, Stanley Matthews, Samuel Freeman Miller (writing for the Court), Morrison Remick Waite, William Burnham Woods

Justices Dissenting



Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

28 February 1881


That Congress had exceeded its powers in subpoenaing and imprisoning Kilbourn, because the congressional investigation for which he had been called did not actually concern legislation; however, because of congressional immunity, only Thompson could be punished for the improper action.

Related Cases

  • Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798).
  • Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866).
  • Loan Association v. Topeka, 87 U.S. 655 (1875).
  • United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876).



Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882