In a blow to House Democrats hoping to unearth damaging information about President Donald Trump ahead of the November election, the Supreme Court on Wednesday temporarily blocked House Democrats from obtaining secret grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Wednesday's order, called a stay, will remain in place until the Trump administration files its formal appeal of a lower court ruling directing the Justice Department to share the grand jury files with the House Judiciary Committee. The High Court told the administration to file its appeal by June 1. The vote count was not disclosed, as is typical of orders of this nature, and there were no noted dissents.
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The case is one of several that places the Court between congressional investigators and President Trump, who has refused to cooperate with House inquiries. This summer the justices will also rule on congressional subpoenas for Trump's personal and professional financial records reaching back to 2010 and decide whether to hear Trump's appeal in Wednesday's case.
The Judiciary Committee is seeking the grand jury materials in connection with an ongoing impeachment inquiry and has pointedly raised the prospect of new impeachment articles in court filings. Wednesday's order puts off that possibility for the time being. If the Court decides to hear the Trump administration's appeal, the stay will remain in place well past the November election, depriving Democrats of still another campaign cudgel against the president.
Strict secrecy rules generally shield grand jury materials from public view. The Judiciary Committee is seeking materials from the Mueller grand jury under an exception that allows their release "in connection with a judicial proceeding." Whether that exception covers an impeachment trial is the legal question underlying Wednesday's case. Committee Democrats told the justices in legal briefs that they may recommend new articles of impeachment depending on the content of the materials.
Though the contours of their inquiry are somewhat ill-defined, Democrats have singled out the president's written responses to questions from the special counsel for scrutiny, saying certain Trump answers seem misleading or false. House lawyers highlighted Trump's response to questions about WikiLeaks and the publication of John Podesta's emails as one possible falsehood in a 2019 legal filing. The brief says Mueller's report "undermines" Trump's reply, but attending citations are redacted under grand jury secrecy rules.
Democrats invoked a possible impeachment in legal filings before the High Court. Concealing the grand jury records keeps the House from fulfilling an essential function, the committee argued.
"Any further delay in receiving the materials would cause the committee and the public to suffer significant, irreparable harm by impairing the House's efforts to determine whether the president committed certain impeachable offenses," congressional lawyers told the justices in legal briefs.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has mostly kept the House from convening, the committee said in an April filing that it is ready to process the materials and hold formal hearings.
"The committee continues to exercise its investigative and oversight responsibilities; its staff are ready and able to review the requested grand jury materials as soon as they are provided by DOJ; and the committee remains able to convene formal hearings to further its investigation," the filing reads.
The Trump administration countered in its own legal filings that there is no reason for speed since an impeachment trial isn't in the offing. Solicitor General Noel Francisco also emphasized that the grand jury materials would be permanently compromised without the Court's intervention.
"Once the government discloses the secret grand-jury records, their secrecy will irrevocably be lost," the government's stay application reads. "That is particularly so when, as here, they are disclosed to a congressional committee and its staff."
The Judiciary Committee adopted confidentiality protocols to maintain secrecy over the contested materials. Indeed, House lawyers note that the panel obtained a lengthy report in 1974 from the Watergate grand jury which it has never released.
Those protocols are little comfort to the Trump administration. The application notes that the protocols allow the release of the grand jury materials by majority vote. Courts could do nothing to stop or penalize such action because of constitutional immunities members of Congress enjoy in the course of their official duties, the Justice Department warned.
In October 2019, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ordered the Justice Department to release previously redacted portions of Mueller’s two-volume report to the House Judiciary Committee, as well as any transcripts or exhibits those sections reference. Democrats can submit further requests for information, provided they show a "particularized need" for them.
A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld Howell's decision, over the dissent of Judge Neomi Rao.
The case is No. 19A1035 Department of Justice v. House Committee on the Judiciary.