WASHINGTON (CN) — A House lawyer told the Supreme Court on Monday that the Justice Department blocking the release of Mueller grand jury materials is thwarting the investigation into impeachable offenses by President Donald Trump.
The D.C. Circuit in March upheld a lower court order for the Justice Department to hand over the records from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, on the grounds that an impeachment trial in the Senate is a “judicial proceeding” that allows for the veil of secrecy on grand jury materials to be lifted.
Democrats claim the grand jury materials could reveal Trump obstructing the Mueller investigation. They point to the Watergate road map as an example of a federal judge turning over grand jury materials to a congressional committee investigating the president.
“The public interest would be harmed irreparably if DOJ runs out the clock on the impeachment process,” House General Counsel Douglas Letter wrote Monday.
The House urged the high court to deny the Justice Department’s request to stay the appeal’s court order to release the secret documents.
But Letter argued too much time has already passed since the district judge ordered their release more than six months ago. If the Supreme Court grants the stay, he argued, the House may not access the records until after the justices rule on whether to hear the full case and then issue a final decision in October at the earliest.
“This substantial delay will seriously endanger the [House Judiciary] Committee’s ability to complete its impeachment investigation during the current Congress — which ends not long thereafter on January 3, 2021,” Letter wrote.
The Justice Department has argued that the D.C. Circuit reading “judicial proceeding” to include a Senate impeachment trial is “in serious tension” with language referring to litigation in United States v. Baggot.
But the House argues the appeals court decision is fully in line with the precedent laid out by the 1983 Supreme Court case.
Letter further argued Monday that review by the justices is unwarranted because the issues underpinning the disclosure debate are few and far between.
“Impeachments are rare, and impeachments requiring the use of grand-jury materials are rarer still,” he wrote. “It is not likely that a decision by this court in this case would provide guidance for many future cases.”
Leslie Gielow Jacobs, director of the Capital Center for Law and Policy and a professor of civil rights law at the McGeorge School of Law, said she does not find the argument that the case is rare very convincing.
But Jacobs also said the Justice Department does not seem to meet the legal threshold to grant a stay.
Even U.S. Circuit Judge Naomi Roa, a Trump appointee who penned a scathing dissent to the D.C. Circuit majority opinion, agreed that an impeachment trial in the Senate is a “judicial proceeding,” the professor noted.
“That said, there are the politics of the whole impeachment inquiry going on here,” Jacobs said, “and so that is certainly going to be in the background of a determination that the court would be making.”
Both lower courts that heard the case determined that the House Judiciary Committee met the required showing of a “particularized need” for the disclosure of grand jury materials.
“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,” U.S. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote in March for a divided three-judge panel.
The committee filed an application last July asking a federal judge to release the materials, setting off a legal battle long expected to land at the Supreme Court.
Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, a Barack Obama appointee, took an even firmer stance than the appeals court when she ordered the records released, accusing the White House of openly stonewalling House subpoenas.