103 U.S. 168 (1881), decided by a vote of 9 to o; Miller for the Court. The House of Representatives in 1876 appointed a special committee to examine the dealings of a real estate partnership in Washington, D.C. Hallett Kilbourn was ordered by the committee to appear and testify. He refused to answer a question or produce records. The committee declared Kilbourn to be in contempt of Congress and ordered him committed to jail. He brought an action of false imprisonment against John Thompson, the sergeant-at-arms who had taken him into custody, and the members of the House committee.
The trial court held in favor of Thompson, but the Supreme Court reversed. The justices left open the question whether either house of Congress had power to punish for contempt, a question that was subsequently answered affirmatively. The Court invalidated the contempt order on the ground that it was rendered in pursuit of an unconstitutional objective. Congress may conduct investigations only for the purpose of gathering information relevant to contemplated future legislation. The proceedings at issue concerned debts owed by the real estate partnership to certain parties, including the United States. The Court viewed this as a judicial, not as a legislative, matter. Under these circumstances, the House exceeded its authority by investigating the private affairs of individuals. Consequently, it had no power to require Kilbourn to testify as a witness. Subsequently, however, the Supreme Court approved a broader investigative power, allowing Congress limited inquiry into private matters.