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Kilbourn v. Thompson

An Uncooperative Witness

Kilbourn has the distinction of being the first uncooperative witness before a congressional committee. Although he did obey the subpoena by appearing before Congress, he refused to produce the papers he was asked for, and he likewise refused to answer any questions put to him by Congress. Therefore, on 14 March 1876, the Speaker of the House sent John S. Thompson, House Sergeant-at-Arms, to find Kilbourn and bring him into custody.

Kilbourn continued to refuse to cooperate, even to the extent of telling the committee the names and addresses of the five members of the real-estate pool. Since this was information that the committee surely already had, Kilbourn's refusal was more symbolic than an actual hindrance to the committee's work, but the committee was incensed at this affront to their authority. They decided to find Kilbourn in contempt, and he was taken by the sergeant-at-arms to "the common jail of the District of Columbia."

There Kilbourn languished for 45 days. Eventually, Kilbourn managed to enter a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia court found in Kilbourn's favor, and Kilbourn promptly sued the men who had caused him to be imprisoned: John S. Thompson plus the five members of the committee. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

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