ICC v. Brimson,
Annotate this Case
154 U.S. 447 (1894)
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U.S. Supreme Court
ICC v. Brimson, 154 U.S. 447 (1897)
Interstate Commerce Commission v. Brimson
Argued April 16, 1894
Decided May 26, 1894
154 U.S. 447
The twelfth section of the Interstate Commerce Act, authorizing the circuit courts of the United States to use their process in aid of inquiries before the Commission established by that act, is not in conflict with the Constitution of the United States as imposing on judicial tribunals duties not judicial in their nature.
A petition filed under that section in the circuit court of the United States against a witness, duly summoned to testify before the Commission, to compel him to testify or to produce books, documents, and papers relating
to the matter under investigation before that body makes a case or controversy to which the judicial power of the United States extends.
As every citizen is bound to obey the law and to yield obedience to the constituted authorities acting within the law, the power conferred upon the Interstate Commerce Commission to require the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of books, papers, and documents relating to a matter under investigation by it imposes upon anyone summoned by that body to appear and testify the duty of appearing and testifying, and upon anyone required to produce such books, papers, and documents, the duty of producing them, if the testimony sought and the books, papers, etc., called for relate to the matter under investigation, if such matter is one which the Commission is legally entitled to investigate, and if the witness is not excused by the law on some personal ground from doing what the Commission requires at his hands.
Power given to Congress to regulate interstate commerce does not carry with it authority to destroy or impair those fundamental guarantees of personal rights that are recognized by the Constitution as inhering in the freedom of the citizen.
It was open to each of the defendants in this proceeding to contend before the circuit court that he was protected by the Constitution from making answer to the questions propounded to him or that he was not bound to produce the books, papers, etc., ordered to be produced, or that neither the questions propounded nor the books, papers, etc., called for related to the particular matter under investigation, nor to any matter which the Commission was entitled under the Constitution or laws to investigate. This issue being determined in their favor by the court below, the petition of the Commission could have been dismissed upon its merits.
The inquiry whether a witness before the Commission is bound to answer a particular question propounded to him, or to produce books, papers, etc., in his possession and called for by that body, is one that cannot he committed to a subordinate administrative or executive tribunal for final determination. Such a body could not, under our system of government and consistently with due process of law, be invested with authority to compel obedience to its orders by a judgment of fine or imprisonment.
Except in the particular instances enumerated in the Constitution, and considered in Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204, and in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U. S. 168, 103 U. S. 190, of the exercise by either house of Congress of its right to punish disorderly behavior upon the part of its members, and to compel the attendance of witnesses, and the production of papers in election and impeachment cases, and in cases that may involve the existence of those bodies, the power to impose fine or imprisonment in order to compel the performance of a legal duty imposed by the United States can only be
exerted, under the law of the land, by a competent judicial tribunal having jurisdiction in the premises.
A proceeding under the twelfth section of the Interstate Commerce Act is not merely ancillary and advisory, nor is its object merely to obtain an opinion of the circuit court that would he without operation upon the rights of the parties. Any judgment rendered will be a final and indisputable basis of action as between the Commission and the defendant, and furnish a precedent for similar cases. The judgment is nonetheless one of a judicial tribunal dealing with questions judicial in their nature and presented in the customary forms of judicial proceedings because its effect may he to aid an administrative or executive body in the performance of duties legally imposed upon it by Congress in execution of a power granted by the Constitution.
The issue made in such a case as this is not one for the determination of a jury, nor can any question of contempt arise until the issue of law in the circuit court is determined adversely to the defendants and they refuse to obey not the order of the Commission, but the final order of the court. In matters of contempt, a jury is not required by due process of law.
The case is stated in the opinion.