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What Does It Mean To Be Held In Contempt?

by Cameron Norsworthy

President Donald Trump's former national security adviser is reportedly withholding some highly sought-after information regarding his suspected Russia ties. This inability to comply is upping Congress' ante, with threats surfacing that Michael Flynn might be held in contempt by Congress. But what does it mean to be held in contempt? It's a serious step that leaders are not taking lightly.

In a gesture of self-preservation, Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendment to prevent possible self-incrimination and has therefore refused to turn over documents that the Senate Intelligence Committee has explicitly asked for. The committee, insistent upon obtaining these documents, has since issued new subpoenas seeking out Flynn's business records.

Flynn's inability to comply, Chairman Richard Burr shared, might force Congress' hand. "If in fact there is not a response, we will seek additional counsel advice on how to proceed forward," Burr said this week. "At the end of that option is a contempt charge and I've said that everything is on the table." Senator Mark Warner, another leader of the committee, postulated: "We have to find out whether we have the ability to either hold Gen. Flynn in contempt or whether it's just Fifth Amendment. I've got to get the legal answer to that first."

Contempt charges happen when someone has "broken the law by disobeying or disrespecting the judge," Merriam Webster explains, albeit in a general sense. Congress is then able to "detain and imprison a contemnor until the individual complies with congressional demands" which, in this case, means holding Flynn until he hands over the documents. Alternatively, Congress can "seek a civil judgement from a federal court declaring that Flynn is legally required to comply with the subpoena," which, again, would mark the third demand of this kind.

The Senate could try Flynn in court and, upon conviction, imprison or fine him through a few different paths. These paths include using an outside attorney or, as mentioned, filing a civil lawsuit in federal court. Regardless, all options seek to punish Flynn to varying degrees, pressuring him to provide the documents sought.

"All I’ve asked him for is documents. I don’t know how you can plead the Fifth on a document request," Burr remarked, but many lawmakers feel that the choice, however aggravating, is both legal and legitimate. "We’ve got to insist on his testimony but he does have the right to take the Fifth Amendment," noted Senator John McCain. So whereas Flynn is allowed to refuse to comply, his refusal is high-risk, with jail time as a possible punishment.