A former California congressman has been cited for contempt of court and ordered to jail--although the order was delayed--for citing congressional privilege in refusing to testify in detail or give up documents demanded in a Seattle libel suit.

John E. Moss, a Democrat who retired in January after 22 years in Congress, said he was refusing a subpoena because of what he called a "significant constitutional issue--the 'speech and debate' clause of the U.S. Constitution." That clause , he says, protects members of Congress from testifying in court.

U.S. District Court Judge Raul A. Ramirez was not impressed by Moss' argument. He ordered Moss to jail, but the order was stayed while the former congressman appealed to a higher court.

"The case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Moss told reporters.

Moss, who wrote the federal Freedom of Information Act, is represented by counsel from the U.S. House of Representatives.

"On the advice of counsel, we are maintaining the position we took in court. We have filed an appeal," Moss said.

On advice of his attorneys, he said, he did not want to go into detail about the case.

However, he was subpoenaed by Fremont Energy Corp., a Denver-based firm that deals in uranium, coal, natural gas and oil, to discuss details of a telephone conversation with a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that occurred while he was a House member.

The energy company filed a $24 million libel suit against the newspaper and the Hearst Corp. after the story, headlined "Power Systems Uranium Contract Probe," was published March 10, 1979.

The story detailed allegations of improprieties between Fremont Energy and the Washington Public Power Supply System. It said Moss had requested an investigation into allegations of "diversion of corporate assets and funds by insiders," according to court records.

Moss said the House subcommittee that he headed had conducted an intensive investigation into the utility's contract with Fremont Energy.

He was subpoenaed Feb. 12 and gave a sworn statement Aug. 26. But, court records showed, an energy firm attorney said: "Mr. Moss consistently refused to answer any substantive question. Mr. Moss has clearly and unambiguously failed to comply with the terms of the subpoena."

Moss is now an official with a Sacramento bank. He told reporters that the case "involved a matter that I was only peripherally involved in while in the Congress. I had no other role than that I happened to chair a committee."