“The Republicans in the House of Representatives apparently believe that they can get some political traction in the ‘Fast and Furious’ controversy, and plan to increase the political pressure on the Obama administration to disclose additional information by holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal and civil contempt,” says Kathleen Clark, JD, government ethics expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The criminal contempt is essentially symbolic,” Clark says. “Under that process, after the House of Representatives votes for a resolution to hold Holder in criminal contempt, that resolution will be sent to a federal prosecutor, who will then decide whether to criminally prosecute Holder.”
Clark notes that the federal prosecutor actually works for Holder, and almost certainly will not prosecute his boss.
“Under these circumstances, criminal contempt ups the political ante for House Republicans and may be embarrassing or a distraction for the attorney general, but it will not result in the production of additional information,” she says.
“The civil contempt resolution, on the other hand, would authorize the House itself to go to court, and ask an independent federal judge to order the executive branch to disclose additional information.
“In general, courts refrain from getting involved in these disputes. But taking the issue to court is another way to increase the political pressure on the Obama administration, even if a court does not order the requested disclosure.”