Do you have a weird, interesting question you can’t get out of your head? Is Google failing you in a search for answers? Enter GBH’s Curiosity Desk, Edgar B. Herwick III’s ongoing series examining some of the everyday mysteries hiding in plain sight. Edgar joined GBH Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, plus talk about how July got its name.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
It’s a phrase you’ve heard many times before — in courtroom proceedings, in Congress on legal TV dramas: “Do you swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the testimony you're about to give is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
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Which is all well and good when a witness is willing to show up and be truthful. But what if the witness simply refuses to agree to the oath?
It turns out basically nobody that I spoke with has ever experienced this, nor have they been involved in any kind of case where this happened. This is a bit of an academic exercise, but it's interesting to play it out.
“There are certain courtroom features that are designed to preserve the integrity of the process, and one is the oath,” GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed said. “If you're testifying under oath, that's a barrier to lying. I can't imagine a scenario where the judge would be like, all right, well, just keep going. And we still want to know what you have to say, because basically you're like signaling, I'm lying.”
If a person refuses to take the oath, odds are whoever is in charge of the proceedings — a judge or Representative Bennie G. Thompson, who has been leading the Jan. 6 Committee hearings — probably won’t let the witness testify.
Refusing to testify, or refusing to testify truthfully, is a violation of the subpoena that got the witness onto the stand, said lawyer and former Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral.
“A subpoena for a witness requires the witness to appear and give testimony,” Cabral said. “Nobody wants you to show up at a committee hearing or a trial just to see your lovely face. They want you to actually come and give evidence in the form of testimony. So if they refuse to swear to tell the truth, they're not in compliance with the subpoena.”
If you're not in compliance with the subpoena, you can be held in contempt of court or, in the case of the Jan. 6 hearings, of Congress. And if you are held in contempt, potential consequences include some jail time.
Those are exceedingly rare, both Medwed and Cabral said.
“It's often viewed as sort of an empty threat, in part because a judge doesn't want to detain somebody,” Medwed said. “And I also think there's this odd situation about, how long would they be detained? I mean, do you just say, I'm going to put you in jail for two days and hope that you'll talk? So it's a hallmark of TV dramas and legal thrillers, but it's much rarer in the courtroom.”
Though contempt charges are rare, they have come into play during the Jan. 6 hearings. Congress had suggested that Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows be charged with contempt. The Department of Justice decided not to charge him. On the other hand, two former Trump allies — advisor Steve Bannon and aide Peter Navarro — have been charged with contempt of Congress, and they're both fighting those charges in court.
The Quinti-lating origins of July
The month of July got its name, of course, from former Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.
Before it was July, it was Quintilis — Latin for the fifth month of the year. That naming convention follows some others: October, the eighth month, November the ninth.
But of course, those months do not correspond with the current calendar, in which July is seventh, October 10th and November 11th. So what happened?
The year actually used to start in March. Under the old Roman calendar, January and February did not exist.
The Romans reset the calendar millennia ago, but March was the first month of the year in England and, by extension, here in the U.S. until the 1750s.
If there is something you've been itching to know more about, email The Curiosity Desk. Edgar might just dig up the answer in a future episode. For more from The Curiosity Desk, follow Edgar B. Herwick III on Twitter and subscribe to the GBH News YouTube Channel.