Subpoenas have been at the center of some of the highest profile inquiries in Washington and beyond — including the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot and the New York attorney general’s office’s efforts to compel testimony from members of the Trump family.
But what is a subpoena? And what recourse do people have if they received one?
Here’s what you need to know:
What is a subpoena?
A subpoena is an order to compel someone to give testimony about something in a legal setting, usually before a court, but sometimes in other settings like a congressional inquiry. It can also require someone to produce documents, data or other records in his or her possession.
The January 6 committee, for example, has filed hundreds of subpoenas for documents and testimony from former Trump officials and allies as it investigates the deadly attack.
What happens if a subpoena is ignored?
Failure to adhere to a subpoena can subject someone to criminal or civil contempt.
- Civil contempt occurs when someone hinders the judicial process by not adhering to the terms of a subpoena.
- Criminal contempt is generally used more as a punishment for undisciplined behavior in court, but it can also occur when someone refuses to turn over documents or other requested information.
Contempt charges can apply until the requested information is produced and the subject of the subpoena has fulfilled his or her legal obligation to the court.
What is subpoena quashing?
A motion to quash a subpoena may be filed if someone believes that it was not issued legally. Such a motion generally means that the subject of the subpoena can refuse to comply with it until the court has made a decision on the motion.
On Monday, for example, members of the Trump family moved to quash subpoenas from the New York attorney general’s office to two of former President Donald Trump’s children seeking their testimony as part of its civil investigation into whether the Trump Organization manipulated the values of its properties.
Lawyers for the former President, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, who were subpoenaed on December 1, asked a judge to quash subpoenas for their testimony, arguing New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking to “circumvent the entire grand jury process.” Allowing the testimony, they argued, would set a “dangerous precedent.”
The Trump lawyers argued in the court filing that James is trying to leverage the civil investigation her office has been conducting since 2019 to aid a criminal investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, known as DANY, that she joined earlier this year.
James’ office will have two weeks to respond to the motion to quash the subpoenas and then the Trump lawyers will have time to reply, meaning a decision over the subpoenas is not expected for at least a month.
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