Appeals Court Rules House Can Have Access to Mueller Grand Jury Materials

March 10, 2020 Updated: March 11, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

An appeals court has ruled on Tuesday that the House of Representatives can have access to grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 to uphold a lower court’s decision to give the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee access to grand jury information redacted from Mueller’s 448-page report, including transcripts or exhibits referenced in the redactions.

In July 2019, the House committee filed an application for a court order to authorize the release of certain grand jury materials related to the Mueller report in an effort to continue the special counsel’s investigation into President Donald Trump.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, appointed by President Barack Obama, ruled in October that the Justice Department (DOJ) must turn over grand jury material referenced in or underlying Mueller’s report. Howell, in her 75-page opinion, ruled that the House’s request for the grand jury material fell under one of the grand jury secrecy law exemptions under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. This prompted the Justice Department to appeal the decision.

The appeals court said in its majority opinion, authored by Judge Judith Rogers, a President Bill Clinton appointee, that the committee had established “a particularized need” to review the grand jury information it is seeking. She was joined by Judge Thomas Griffith, a President George W. Bush appointee.

“[T]he Special Counsel stopped short of making any ‘ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,’ … in part to avoid preempting the House’s sole power of impeachment … the Committee has established that it cannot ‘fairly and diligently’ make a final determination about the conduct described in both volumes of the Mueller Report ‘without the grand jury material referenced’ therein,” Rogers wrote in the opinion (pdf).

Moreover, the district court controls access to the grand jury material, not the executive branch or the DOJ, Roger said.

“The Department has objected to disclosure of the redacted grand jury materials, but the Department has no interest in objecting to the release of these materials outside of the general purposes and policies of grand jury secrecy, which as discussed, do not outweigh the Committee’s compelling need for disclosure,” Rogers wrote. “Even if the Department had not objected to disclosure, the district court would still need to authorize disclosure pursuant to Rule 6(e)’s ‘judicial proceeding’ exception.”

In the dissent, Judge Neomi Rao, a President Donald Trump appointee, wrote that it is not clear whether the committee still needs the materials since the House had already impeached the president and the Senate had voted to acquit him.

“A reasonable observer might wonder why we are deciding this case at this time,” Rao wrote. “After all, the Committee sought these materials preliminary to an impeachment proceeding and the Senate impeachment trial has concluded. Why is this controversy not moot?”

“The majority simply turns a blind eye to these very public events and the parties have not submitted any additional briefs; however, a few observations are worth noting,” she added.

Rao also found that the committee lacks standing to seek a court order to compel the Justice Department to hand over the material to the committee.

This case was one of the many House Democrat’s court battles seeking material and information from the president and his administration.

In February, the same court ruled 2-1 that former White House counsel Donald McGahn was not required to testify in the House Judiciary Committee. The appeals court ruled that they agree with the DOJ’s argument that Constitution bars federal courts from resolving disputes between the legislative and executive branches.

“If federal courts were to swoop in to rescue Congress whenever its constitutional tools failed, it would not just supplement the political process; it would replace that process with one in which unelected judges become the perpetual ‘overseer[s]’ of our elected officials. That is not the role of judges in our democracy, and that is why Article III compels us to dismiss this case,” Griffith, who was also on the panel in that case, wrote in the majority opinion (pdf).

In the ruling on Tuesday, Griffith also wrote a concurring opinion explaining that the Mueller grand jury case is different from the McGahn case.

“Unlike McGahn, this case does not involve a suit between the political branches over executive-branch documents or testimony. Instead, it involves an application for access to records of the grand jury, whose disclosure the district court has traditionally controlled,” Griffith said.

The Justice Department told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that it was reviewing the decision.

The article was updated with a statement from the Justice Department on March 11.

Follow Janita on Twitter: @janitakan