Can House Democrats arrest Bill Barr?

Can House Democrats arrest Bill Barr?
William Barr image via PBS NewsHour

After voting to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress (a likely outcome after the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a contempt resolution against the attorney general), Democrats in the House of Representatives have a unique weapon in their arsenal —one which hasn’t been deployed in nearly a century, the Atlantic’s Russel Berman reports. Should they choose, members of Congress can arrest Barr for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena.

As Berman notes, the courts have granted both the House and Senate “authority to enforce their orders by imprisoning those who violate them — literally,” and order the sergeant-at-arms to take violators into custody. In 1821, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress has the “inherent authority” to arrest witnesses for failing to comply with lawful orders. That authority was reinforced in 1927, when, according to Reuters, the Court ruled that the Senate acted within the law by “sending its deputy sergeant-at-arms to Ohio to arrest and detain the brother of the then-attorney general.”

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted to hold Barr in contempt after he failed to submit the unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In an interview on CNN’s New Day before the House Judiciary Committee’s vote, chairmen Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) framed the contempt issue as a matter of constitutional authority.

“Attorney General Barr has made the entire Justice Department an agency for enabling the president to defy the law, to defy and kind of accountability and to act as a monarch,” Nadler said.

The chairman noted the process “could take a while,” but added he has “no doubt” that the House of Representatives will be successful at holding Barr in contempt.

“This is not new law, this is well-established old law,” Nadler explained.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) echoed Nadler in an interview with Berman. “This is not some peripheral schoolyard skirmish,” Raskin said. “This goes right to the heart of our ability to do our work as Congress of the United States.”

“Its day in the sun is coming,” Raskin said of the Mueller report.

Raskin, a former constitutional-law professor, explained “the so-called inherent powers of contempt of Congress,” laying out the precedent for such a move:

“In the 19th century, Congress had the sergeant-at-arms arrest and detain people until they complied with lawful orders of Congress. And we would have the power to fine people who were out of compliance with the law. So that provides another avenue.”

The White House, meanwhile, is attempting to outmaneuver congressional Democrats. In a letter to Nadler on Wednesday, assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd informed the House Judiciary Committee the president would be asserting executive privilege “over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials,” setting up yet another showdown between Congress and President Donald Trump.

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