Constitutional Law – Legislative Contempt Power-Procedure Against Witness for Conduct Before Commission Composed of Legislators and Others

The Massachusetts General Court, for the purpose of investigating communism and subversive activities within the Commonwealth, established by joint resolution a “special commission” composed of two members of the Senate, three members of the House, and two persons to be appointed by the governor. When the commission summoned Otis A. Hood to appear before it, he refused to be sworn as a witness without first receiving witness fees, and flippantly expressed his demand for payment. The general court requested an advisory opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, propounding three questions: (1) whether the special commission was a committee of the legislature so that contempt before it constituted contempt of the general court within the meaning of specified articles of the Massachusetts Constitution; (2) whether the general court could adjudicate in contempt and punish a person guilty of disrespectful behavior before such a commission; and (3) whether, if there were such a power, a hearing before the bar of the general court was required before commitment. Held: “No” to questions 1 and 2, and question 3 consequently inapplicable. Because a committee composed of legislators and others is not a working part of the House, contemptuous behavior before such a commission cannot be said to be directed against the House as a whole, and therefore is not subject to the legislative contempt power. Opinion of the Justices, (Mass. 1954) 119 N.E. (2d) 385.