In Setback for Democrats, Supreme Court Will Hear Case On Sealed Mueller Evidence

The Supreme Court / Getty Images
July 2, 2020

The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear the Trump administration's bid to shield secret grand jury materials from House Democrats, all but ensuring that those records won't feature in the presidential election.

The High Court previously blocked House Democrats from viewing the materials while it considered the administration's appeal, and that order will remain in place until Thursday's case is decided. Arguments will likely be scheduled near the end of the year, and a decision will follow some months later, long after the November balloting.

House Democrats say former special counsel Robert Mueller's report raises the prospect that President Donald Trump made false or misleading statements in written answers to questions from the special counsel. Some of those questions concern WikiLeaks and the publication of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta's emails. Though Mueller declined to reach a conclusion about obstruction of justice on Trump's part, congressional investigators claim redacted grand jury records could cast new light on the president's actions.

Grand jury materials are protected by secrecy rules. The legal question in the case is whether Congress can obtain records from the Mueller grand jury under an exception to secrecy that permits release "in connection with a judicial proceeding." House Democrats say that exception applies here because the Mueller records will help them decide whether to bring new articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

"The redacted grand-jury material bears on whether the president committed impeachable offenses by obstructing the special counsel’s investigation," congressional lawyers wrote in a legal filing before the Court.

"The assertion is belied by subsequent developments: The House already has impeached the president, the Senate already has acquitted him, and neither respondent nor the House has provided any indication that a second impeachment is imminent," Solicitor General Noel Francisco countered in a May legal brief.

The administration also says that an impeachment inquiry does not count as a "judicial proceeding" and that the case presents thorny questions about the balance of power between the branches of government, warranting the Court's intervention.

In October 2019, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ordered the Justice Department to release the redacted portions of Mueller’s two-volume report that House Democrats are seeking, as well as any transcripts or exhibits those sections reference. A federal appeals court ruled for House Democrats thereafter.

"Courts must take care not to second-guess the manner in which the House plans to proceed with its impeachment investigation or interfere with the House’s sole power of impeachment," Judge Judith Rogers wrote in a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit siding with House Democrats.

Rogers elsewhere wrote that federal courts allowed congressional investigators to access secret grand jury files in connection with impeachment proceedings on five occasions in the past. Judge Neomi Rao dissented.

In the coming days, the Supreme Court is also expected to rule on a set of subpoenas from House investigators for the president's personal and professional financial records.

The case is No. 19-1328 Department of Justice v. House Committee on the Judiciary.