The Mixed Legacy of the January 6 Investigation for Executive Privilege and Congressional Oversight

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The attack on the Capitol on January 6 was an unprecedented event in U.S. history. Across a wide swath of constitutional law, January 6 will have significant implications and consequences, most of which are likely not yet known. That is particularly true of constitutional doctrines governing congressional oversight and executive privilege. The select committee established by the House of Representatives to investigate the events on and leading up to January 6 has undertaken a monumental task of investigating, collecting, and reporting the facts surrounding the attack, and the January 6 committee has doggedly pursued an exhaustive investigation in furtherance of its originating purposes and functions. That pursuit—undertaken pursuant to Congress’s implicit authority to conduct oversight—has generated numerous important precedents related to the scope of that authority and the constitutional doctrine of executive privilege, the executive branch’s common defense to congressional oversight.<br><br>This essay undertakes a first attempt to understand the legacy of the precedents on congressional oversight and executive privilege generated by the January 6 investigation against the backdrop of the constitutional disputes that predated the committee’s inception. Most importantly, perhaps, the committee’s success—alongside several high-profile failures—demonstrate forcefully the extent to which Congress must rely on the executive branch to assert its constitutional authority. The successes of the committee were almost wholly attributable to a politically aligned, sympathetic White House and Department of Justice. Beyond that, the judicial and executive branch precedents generated by the investigation will be particularly impactful in three ways. First, these precedents powerfully affirm a constitutional role for congressional reconstruction and reconciliation of past events, even if no specific legislative action is on the table. Second, they cast significant doubt on the continued validity of the executive branch’s position that Congress acting in its legislative capacity can rarely, if ever, meet the showing of need for specific information necessary to overcome an assertion of executive privilege. Third, they reinforce Congress’s authority to demand information on pain of criminal contempt and restrict available defenses to that contempt. These three affirmations of congressional authority are all tempered somewhat, however, by the underlying need for executive branch support.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - Dec 13 2022

Publication series

Name37 Constitutional Commentary (Forthcoming 2023)


  • executive privilege
  • constitutional law
  • January 6
  • congressional oversight


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