21 Jan 24

Who Can Issue Federal Subpoenas and How the Process Typically Works

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Last Updated on: 21st January 2024, 10:46 pm

Who Can Issue Federal Subpoenas and How the Process Typically Works

A federal subpoena is a writ or order issued by a federal court or federal agency requiring a person to appear as a witness or produce documents or other evidence. Federal subpoenas are powerful legal tools that compel cooperation and testimony, with penalties for noncompliance. Understanding who can issue federal subpoenas and the typical process can shed light on this important part of the legal system.

Who Can Issue Federal Subpoenas

There are a few key entities that have the authority to issue federal subpoenas:

Federal Courts

Federal district courts, bankruptcy courts, the Court of International Trade, and appellate courts like circuit courts can all issue subpoenas in relation to cases before them. For example, a federal district court overseeing a criminal prosecution or civil lawsuit may issue subpoenas ordering witnesses to testify or turn over documents.Judges, magistrates, clerks of court, and attorneys authorized to practice before the court typically have power to sign and issue subpoenas. Court rules dictate specifics like format, deadlines, and service requirements.

Federal Grand Juries

A federal grand jury investigating a potential crime can issue subpoenas through the U.S. Attorney’s Office. This compels documents, testimony, and other evidence as part of the grand jury’s investigative powers.

Federal Agencies

Many federal agencies have the authority to issue administrative subpoenas for investigations and proceedings within their jurisdiction. For example, agencies like the FBI, IRS, SEC, and Federal Trade Commission can subpoena evidence or testimony by witnesses.Some agency heads and officials are designated to approve administrative subpoenas. And Congress has specifically granted subpoena power to various agencies through statutes.

Congressional Committees

Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate can issue subpoenas in conjunction with their oversight and investigative authority. For example, committees frequently subpoena executive branch officials to testify at hearings. The committee chairman or a majority of members typically approves subpoenas.

The Federal Subpoena Process

While the details vary, federal subpoenas usually follow a common procedural path:

Form and Contents

The subpoena must be properly formatted and specify key details, like:

  • Issuing entity
  • Case caption or investigation name
  • Name of person being subpoenaed
  • Date, location, and method for response
  • Description of testimony, documents, or objects requested


The subpoena must be properly served upon the person being subpoenaed, according to rules on method (personal delivery, registered mail, etc.) and timeliness. This provides legal notice.


The subpoena recipient can sometimes object to the subpoena with the issuing court or agency. Grounds may include improper service, unreasonable scope, or privileged information.

Compliance or Challenge

If objections fail, the subpoena recipient must either comply or challenge through a court motion to quash or modify the subpoena. Failure to comply without a court order risks contempt charges.


If challenges are unsuccessful, courts can enforce subpoenas through sanctions like civil contempt or criminal contempt charges for willful noncompliance. Fines or imprisonment may result.So in summary, federal subpoena power springs from courts, agencies, grand juries, and congressional committees. Recipients must comply or successfully challenge subpoenas on lawful grounds. Enforcement mechanisms like contempt encourage compliance with proper subpoenas. Understanding this process helps illuminate this key component of federal investigations and litigation.


Overview of federal court subpoena power: jury subpoenas issued by federal prosecutors: agencies with subpoena authority: committee subpoena process: details for a valid federal subpoena: on serving federal subpoenas: to potentially quash a federal subpoena: of challenging federal subpoenas: federal subpoenas through contempt: