IRS official Lois Lerner testifies
Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
MINNEAPOLIS -- The IRS official at the center of the storm over the agency's targeting of conservatives is pleading the 'fifth' and refusing to answer lawmakers' questions.
What happened at that hearing today also happened during the McCarthy era. Many mobsters famously pleaded the 5th. Oliver North did as well
On Wednesday the chief of the IRS's tax exempt division did the same.
Lois Lerner was called to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee, with the IRS under fire for targeting conservative groups that were seeking tax exempt status.
She introduced herself, proclaimed her innocence and then told lawmakers she wasn't going to answer any of their questions on the advice of her lawyers, invoking her 5th Amendment right.
"Because I'm asserting my right not to testify I know some people will assume I've done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic functions of the 5th amendment is to protect innocent individuals and that is the protection I'm invoking today," Lerner told lawmakers.
So what does it actually mean to invoke the 5th Amendment?
It's a concept that seems to be entrenched these days in pop culture. But really, the 5th Amendment is deeply rooted in American Constitutional law with its origins in English Common Law.
"It is basically the right as found in the fifth amendment that says we have a right not to testify against ourselves, not to make any self-incriminating statements that could be used against us in a criminal proceeding," says Constitutional Law professor David Schultz.
As Lerner suggested during her testimony, sometimes people think that if you plead the 5th, you are guilty. That is not the case at all says Schultz. The 5th Amendment comes from a much deeper notion, a deeper argument that in a free society like the United States we have a right to not say anything if we are going to potentially be charged with a crime.
In the IRS cas, there could be a criminal indictment. Under the 5th citizens are not obligated to help the government make its case.
The way it's written, says Schultz, the Amendment seems to only apply in criminal cases, but the court has interpreted the Amendment more broadly. You can plead the 5th if something you say in a civil case could be used against you in a criminal case. It also applies to congressional hearings
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