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Kilbourn v. Thompson


This case was the first time the Supreme Court had reviewed a congressional investigation, and the decision constituted a significant limitation on congressional powers.

On 6 December 1875, a new House of Representatives convened with the Democratic Party in the majority after the 36th through the 43rd Congresses had been dominated by the Republican Party. The newly elected politicians were eager to take decisive action.

On 24 January 1876, the House moved into a new type of activity: investigation. The huge corporation of Jay Cooke & Co. had gone into bankruptcy, amidst rumors of corruption and financial scandal. Indeed, the bankruptcy was pending before the District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania. Cooke's company actually owed the U.S. government money. Moreover, a trustee of Cooke's estate had recently made a settlement that was alleged to be disadvantageous to Cooke's creditors--including the government. This the House proposed to investigate.

Although Congress had never before engaged in such activities, the House passed a resolution directing the Speaker to appoint a five-member committee, with the power to subpoena witnesses and related documents. The committee sent for Hallett Kilbourn.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Kilbourn v. Thompson - Significance, An Uncooperative Witness, Preserving The Separation Of Powers, Congressional Immunity, Samuel R. Lowery, African American Lawyer