Contempt of court vs. contempt of Congress (Martin Shkreli)

Today, Martin Shkreli appeared before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives to answer questions concerning the pricing policy for a drug his company manufactures (see also this thread on the SDMB). On the advice of his lawyer, Shkreli “pleaded the 5th” and refused to answer any questions. The hearing was rather confrontational.

Later that afternoon, Shkreli wrote on Twitter:

I was wondering: Could this kind of wording have consequences for Shkreli, i. e., is there a chance that it can be seen as “contempt of Congress” (if there is such a thing?) after the fact? Otherwise, I guess, calling politicians “imbeciles” is covered by free speech.

What would happen if I had to testify in court, pleaded the 5th, leave the courtroom, hold a press conference on the steps of the courthouse and call the judge an “imbecile”? Would this be any different?

(Note: This is not intended to be a discussion of Mr. Shkreli, I’m merely interested in the legal situation with regard to making disrespectful/insulting statements about congressmen vs. judges).

Criticizing the government is the most sacred and important part of freedom of speech. No guessing about it. Calling elected officials imbeciles is clearly protected speech.

Legally, properly, I don’t think anything. You can make statements about your opinion of judges or politicians outside of court/hearings without running afoul of any law.

But, of course, those judges and politicians are only human, and they hold a tremendous amount of power. It’s probably a poor idea to piss them off.

I think that if his out-of-court statements could be construed as an answer to the questions he was asked, then he could be deemed to have waived his Fifth Amendment rights and compelled to testify. I don’t think “you’re an imbecile” counts for that purpose, though.

A “contempt” charge means you failed to comply with a court order or attempted to obstruct the function of the court. Insulting a judge (or Congressman) while in their presence could be construed as disruptive to the proceedings and, if ordered to desist, they could hold the person in contempt.

Merely insulting or criticizing the court, especially outside the courtroom, is not sufficient. As mentioned above, to cite any disrespect of the authority in any context as a criminal offense would very quickly turn the US into North Korea.

I wonder if pleading the fifth incorrectly can be called contempt.
Its rather dishonest to suggest that you might incriminate yourself if all you want to do is protect your financial interest ?

Because, what does his Turing pricing strategy have to do with the MSMB ponzi scheme ?

It would seem possible to prove that he really had no risk of incriminating himself if he stuck to the topic of Turing. Anything at Turing was nothing at all to do with the MSMB thing …

The (potentially) contemptuous part was referring to the congressmen (who sit on the committee) as “imbeciles”, not pleading the fifth.

He’s under securities fraud charges. He’s not just trying to protect financial interests; he’s trying to stay out of jail. Pleading the 5th is the only sane course of action.

Right. “Contempt” under the rules of judiciary or congressional procedure is a term of art referring to a specific behavior that can disrupt or ignore the court’s/committee’s official authority. It’s a different thing from the emotional sentiment of “contempt” one feels for people you consider vile, whose expression is protected outside of the hearing.

And you know that how?

Plus, the usual statement isn’t that it will incriminate the witness, but that it may incriminate the witness. The witness is permitted to take a broad approach, because it may well not be clear what the prosecution is investigating, or what charges may be in the offing.

The way a lawyer pal explained it to me is, there’s a minefield of questions they can ask you that, if answered, can effectively waive your right to refuse to answer subsequent questions. (Picture Jack McCoy saying “He opened the door to this, your honor!”) Shkreli did exactly what you or I should do if ever in front of a congressional committee: exactly what his lawyer told him to do.

I hope it never will be. No one could read and understood the entire US legal code, including knowing in advance how judges might rule on ambiguous passages. So no one could know if the answer to a question might incriminate them.

nm

Why would anyone before a congressional committee not refuse to answer on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves?

Most of the time speaking before a congressional committee doesn’t involve discussing things that put you at risk of criminal charges and can be a chance to affect laws or speak your mind. For example, Dee Snider (lead singer of Twisted Sister) took advantage of answering questions from a congressional committee to attack music censorship and accuse Tipper Gore of being so into intense S&M that she interpreted a song about surgery as being about a bloody S&M scene.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veoYcsH7Wrs

[quote=“Pantastic, post:14, topic:745163”]

Most of the time speaking before a congressional committee doesn’t involve discussing things that put you at risk of criminal charges and can be a chance to affect laws or speak your mind. For example, Dee Snider (lead singer of Twisted Sister) took advantage of answering questions from a congressional committee to attack music censorship and accuse Tipper Gore of being so into intense S&M that she interpreted a song about surgery as being about a bloody S&M scene.

[/QUOTE]

Now that was cool. Go, Dee!

But if I were before a congressional committee I think that with each question asked, I’d shuffle through my stack of papers, clear my throat, pour a dollop of water and take a sip, choke a bit, wipe my mouth, refold my handkerchief, adjust my reading glasses and glance back at my notes, then lean too close to the microphone (initiating feedback) and say, “on the advise of counsel I respectfully decline to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me.”

I would repeat this for each question, with additional flourishes like accidentally knocking over my glass, requesting a pee break, checking in on Facebook, etc.

Sounds like a solid strategy. I guess, though, that the “checking in on Facebook” part could get you into trouble (with regard to contempt)?

They wouldn’t allow me to check in? Takes two seconds and it would look so cool. I wouldn’t go on and on, just hit “check-in”. What would come up? The Whithouse? Congress?

Any dopers ever check in on Facebook from a congressional hearing?

Security probably would not let you bring in a selfie stick.

Aww, come on. I’d check-in discretely with my phone hidden in my briefcase or under the table. Seriously, jeesh.

Instead of bringing large stacks of paper files to a courtroom or a meeting, many lawyers and other professionals keep all their essential notes on an Ipad. The judge can’t tell if you are pondering deep legal issues or enjoying the digital version of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.