The aftershocks of the riot at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, continue to ripple through the American public square. The United States Department of Justice brought over 750 criminal charges against the assailants. The United States House of Representatives appointed a Select Committee to investigate the riot. And the public continues to discuss the meaning of January 6 as these criminal prosecutions continue and the House's investigation concludes. Although this is the first time in American history that a mob actually breached the Capitol, riots and insurrections attempting to overawe parliamentary bodies on their own grounds are well precedented in the Anglo-American legal tradition.
The purpose of this article is to provide historical context for affrays like the Trump Riot of January 6 and provide a framework for how legislatures should respond. Parliamentary precedents on both sides of the Atlantic prove that anyone who riots at the legislature is in contempt of parliamentary privilege. The legislature can refer such contempt to the executive for criminal prosecution. In egregious cases, however, the legislature should not hesitate to vindicate itself by using its own contempt power. The legislature should appoint a joint select committee or independent commission to investigate and hold those politically responsible to account.
There may be cases when an officer or an agent of the executive provokes or incites a riot at the Capitol. The legislature must prevail in its efforts to bring them in for a hearing and compel them to produce discovery. Of the three coordinate branches of the federal government the legislature is first among equals. Parliamentary privilege must therefore trump executive privilege during an investigation of an assault on the national assembly. Any member of the executive who contemptuously incites a mob at the seat of government is liable for discipline under the inherent power of Congress.