WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge agreed to unseal documents from 11 cases associated with independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl Howell found Monday that the court has the authority to unseal grand jury materials when enough time has passed and the public interest is great enough.
The Department of Justice wanted only information disclosed in Starr’s 1998 report to Congress to be unsealed: in which he recommended that the House of Representatives impeach Clinton.
The Department of Justice asked the court to keep the rest secret, arguing that “the court lacks the authority to unseal grand jury materials for reasons of ‘extreme public interest’ or other reasons outside the secrecy exceptions of the federal rule of criminal procedure 6(e).”
Howell disagreed, noting that the D.C. Circuit had “widely rejected” the Justice Department’s narrow view.
“Contrary to DOJ’s position, a court may invoke its ‘inherent supervisory authority to order the release of grand jury materials’ outside the boundaries of Rule 6(e),’” Howell wrote.
CNN and its reporter Katelyn Polantz asked the court on Feb. 9 to unseal the materials, which have been sealed for roughly 20 years.
CNN attorney Adrianna Rodriguez, with Ballard Spahr, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.
CNN and Polantz sought to unseal testimony from former deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsey, former Clinton assistant Sidney Blumenthal, former Clinton deputy assistant Nancy Hernreich, and former special counsel to Clinton, Lanny Breuer.
Despite objections to full disclosure from the Justice Department, Howell found the need for continued secrecy of these matters low, but agreed to keep secret two documents in each docket concerning a separate investigation of judicial misconduct.
CNN and Polantz also asked for disclosure of grand jury testimony from the Secret Service. Among 38 sealed documents, Howell agreed to redact only the names of two Secret Service employees, and a deposition given before the grand jury.
Howell also agreed to release lightly redacted documents pertaining to a subpoena for President Clinton’s phone logs and meeting records, agreeing to withhold only information that would reveal “the number of, and specific information targeted by, this subpoena.”
Howell also kept secret Clinton’s withdrawal of a motion for continuance concerning a subpoena for his grand jury testimony, which he withdrew after agreeing to testify.
In its Feb. 9 letter, CNN said “the possibility of compelled presidential testimony” facing the Trump administration, and “keen public interest” in learning how similar interactions unfolded in 1998 when the Clinton administration clashed with independent counsel Starr, serve as strong reasons to unseal the records.
As is the case with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the issue of whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury arose during Starr’s investigation, too. That matter was resolved when President Clinton agreed to voluntarily testify via closed-circuit television, but it remains an open question for President Trump.
Howell also agreed to unseal many of the documents pertaining to Terry Lenzner, an attorney and private investigator for Clinton. Media reports that Lenzner was investigating private matters of career prosecutors prompted Starr to issue a subpoena to Lenzner, which Clinton tried to quash with claims of attorney-client privilege.
Clinton succeeded on the motion, though Lenzner was ordered to turn over fee information to the grand jury. Those documents have never been unsealed.
Howell, however, will keep a lid on grand jury transcripts and details about Lenzner’s grand jury testimony, along with information about what Starr hoped to elicit from Lenzner.
Howell also said that “specific matters occurring before the grand jury” should be protected from disclosure.
Among the documents to be unsealed in the case is an 11-page judicial opinion of July 29, 1998.
“While the continued secrecy of judicial opinions regarding grand jury matters is necessary to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation, that need for secrecy decreases once the investigation ends and continues to diminish over time,” the ruling states. “The public has an overarching interest in the accessibility of judicial opinions.”
Clinton himself intervened in the matter, offering his views on whether the material should be disclosed. He noted that much of the material had already been made public but that “there may be in the sealed dockets material that is still appropriately protected.”
According to the ruling, Clinton identified three more sealed dockets not cited by CNN that should be unsealed.
Clinton’s counsel was allowed, after notification from the Department of Justice, to review materials that might still be kept appropriately under seal.
The Department of Justice did not return an email seeking comment.