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Kilbourn v. Thompson

Preserving The Separation Of Powers

One of the cornerstones of the American system is the notion of the separation of powers. The legislative branch is charged with making the laws; the executive branch is required to enforce the laws; and the judicial branch is expected to interpret the laws. If a person is believed to have broken a law, the proper place to investigate the matter and to determine a response is supposed to be in court.

This doctrine was further defined when the Supreme Court ruled in Kilbourn v. Thompson, for the Court held that Congress had exceeded its powers by investigating Cooke & Co. in the first place. In an apparently unanimous opinion written by Justice Miller, the Court pointed out that British Parliamentary tradition--the foundation for the American system--holds no precedent for the punishment of a private citizen for refusing to testify before a legislative body. True, the House had the power to punish its own members. The House also had the power to do a great deal that might be necessary to fulfill its legislative mission. However, Justice Miller wondered what could possibly be the legislative intent behind conducting this investigation.

To inquire into the nature and history of the real-estate pool. How indefinite! What was the real-estate pool? Is it charged with any crime or offence? If so, the courts alone can punish the members of it. Is it charged with a fraud against the government? Here, again, the courts, and they alone, can afford a remedy . . . Can the rights of the pool, or of its members, and the rights of the debtor, and of the creditor of the debtor, be determined by the report of a committee or by an act of Congress? If they cannot, what authority has the House to enter upon this investigation into the private affairs of individuals who hold no office under the government.

Since the House had no authority to investigate the matter in the first place, the Court said, it certainly had no power to hold Kilbourn in contempt. Kilbourn's suit was upheld.

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