Members of the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol have shown they’re willing to pursue criminal contempt referrals against witnesses who refuse to comply with the panel’s subpoenas.
But what does that mean? Criminal contempt is one of the three options the congressional panel can pursue to enforce its subpoenas, along with civil and inherent contempt.
Former President Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows is the latest official to face such a referral from the panel. Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said that Meadows left the committee with “no choice but to advance contempt proceedings” after he stopped cooperating with the panel.
Once a criminal contempt referral clears the House select committee, it heads to the full House for a vote. If that vote succeeds, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certifies the report to the United States attorney for the District of Columbia.
Under law, this certification then requires the United States attorney to “bring the matter before the grand jury for its action,” but the Justice Department will also makes its own determinations for prosecuting.
Any individual who is found liable for contempt of Congress is then guilty of a crime that may result in a fine and between one and 12 months imprisonment. But this process is rarely invoked and rarely leads to jail time.
As severe as a criminal contempt referral sounds, the House’s choice to use the Justice Department may be more of a warning shot than a solution. Holding a person in criminal contempt through a prosecution could take years, and historic criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.
The committee approved a criminal contempt report against Trump ally Steve Bannon in October after he refused to comply with a subpoena deadline.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Ryan Nobles, Annie Grayer, Whitney Wild and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.