Investigatory Power of Congress Under McGrain v. DaughertyHistorical
In McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927), the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress’ power of inquiry, along with means of enforcement, are an integral and valid exercise of its legislative function.
Facts of the Case
The case sprung from Congressional investigations into the Teapot Dome scandal, which revealed corruption in the administration of President William Harding. In the course of the investigation, a Senate committee issued and caused to be duly served on Mally S. Daugherty — who was a brother of Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and president of the Midland National Bank of Washington Court House, Ohio — a subpoena commanding him to appear before the committee to give testimony. The witness failed to appear, and the Senate issued a warrant.
After being arrested, Mally Daugherty petitioned the federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus. The court held that the attachment and detention were unlawful and discharged the witness. It held that the Senate, in directing the investigation and in ordering the attachment, exceeded its powers under the Constitution.
The Senate appealed to the Supreme Court. According to the Court, the issues in the case were:
(a) whether the Senate-or the House of Representatives, both being on the same plane in this regard-has power, through its own process, to compel a private individual to appear before it or one of its committees and give testimony needed to enable it efficiently to exercise a legislative function belonging to it under the Constitution; and (b) whether it sufficiently appears that the process was being employed in this instance to obtain testimony for that purpose.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed. It held that Congress has the authority to compel witnesses to appear and provide testimony.
In reaching its decision, the Court concluded that “the two houses of Congress, in their separate relations, have not only such powers as are expressly granted them by the Constitution, but also such auxiliary powers as are necessary and appropriate to make the express powers effective.”
Nonetheless, the Court concluded that neither is invested with “general” power to inquire into private affairs and compel disclosures but “only with such limited power of inquiry as is shown to exist when the rule of constitutional interpretation just stated is rightly applied.”
The Court further held that the “power of inquiry — with process to enforce it — is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.” As Justice Willis Van Devanter explained:
A legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information respecting the conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change, and where the legislative body does not itself possess the requisite information — which not infrequently is true — recourse must be had to others who do possess it. Experience has taught that mere requests for such information often are unavailing, and also that information which is volunteered is not always accurate or complete, so some means of compulsion are essential to obtain what is needed. All this was true before and when the Constitution was framed and adopted. In that period, the power of inquiry, with enforcing process, was regarded and employed as a necessary and appropriate attribute of the power to legislate — indeed, was treated as inhering in it. Thus, there is ample warrant for thinking, as we do, that the constitutional provisions which commit the legislative function to the two houses are intended to include this attribute to the end that the function may be effectively exercised.
With regard to the facts of the case, the Court held that the purpose for which the witness’ testimony was sought was to obtain information in aid of the legislative function. Justice Van Devanter wrote:
It is quite true that the resolution directing the investigation does not in terms avow that it is intended to be in aid of legislation; but it does show that the subject to be investigated was the administration of the Department of Justice — whether its functions were being properly discharged or were being neglected or misdirected, and particularly whether the Attorney General and his assistants were performing or neglecting their duties in respect of the institution and prosecution of proceedings to punish crimes and enforce appropriate remedies against the wrongdoers, specific instances of alleged neglect being recited. Plainly the subject was one on which legislation could be had and would be materially aided by the information which the investigation was calculated to elicit.
Accordingly, the Court concluded that “the investigation was ordered for a legitimate object; that the witness wrongfully refused to appear and testify before the committee and was lawfully attached; that the Senate is entitled to have him give testimony pertinent to the inquiry, either at its bar or before the committee, and that the district court erred in discharging him from custody under the attachment.”
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.