Supreme Court Puts Hold on Release of Mueller Records

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters following the back-to-back hearings with former special counsel Robert Mueller who testified about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election on July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress had been set to obtain grand jury materials from the Mueller probe on Monday, but now that release is on hold indefinitely.

Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Justice Department a stay Friday, and gave the House Judiciary Committee until May 18 to respond.

In his application for the stay a day earlier, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco noted that the Justice Department will fight the March ruling from D.C. Circuit that ordered release of the records.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit had been divided on the issue, and Francisco emphasized the dissent from U.S. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao that said the House failed to show a “particularized need” for the materials.

A Trump appointee, Rao said the case should have been remanded to the District Court to determine if there is still a need to release the documents now that the president is no longer being impeached.

At oral arguments in January, House general counsel Douglas Letter argued that the release of the redacted grand jury materials could lead to more articles of impeachment and would help the House Judiciary Committee evaluate if witnesses lied to the team assembled by special counsel Robert Mueller.

For the government, however, such a prospective claim fails to satisfy the legal requirement. 

“Respondent has provided no indication that the House urgently needs these materials,” Francisco wrote.

The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure specify “judicial proceedings” as one event that permits the breach of traditional grand jury secrecy. Francisco says no court of appeals has directly addressed whether Senate impeachment trials qualify.

In light of the 1983 decision in United State v. Baggot — where the court ruled an IRS investigation into civil tax liability did not constitute a judicial proceeding — Francisco said it shouldn’t.

“The term ‘judicial proceeding’ … means a proceeding taking place before a court,” he wrote. “That is — and has always been — the ordinary meaning of the term.” 

U.S. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, wrote the D.C. Circuit majority opinion, which found the government’s strict definition of a judicial proceeding is “unpersuasive in any event.”

“Constitutional text confirms that a Senate impeachment trial is a judicial proceeding,” Rogers wrote.

“The Framers of the Constitution also understood impeachment to involve the exercise of judicial power,” she added. “The district court here properly concluded that ‘the Federalist Papers, the text of the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent all make clear’ that ‘impeachment trials are judicial in nature and constitute judicial proceedings.’”

As arguments over the records get underway, the leader of a Supreme Court transparency group said Friday’s order could have been announced with less bureaucratic red tape.

“Luckily, there are plenty watchful media members following the docket here, but the fact that the court would disseminate a stay in such an important case under the banner ‘miscellaneous order’ — the same opaque description the court uses when denying a stay of execution, by the way, is unfortunate,” Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said in an email.

The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

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