Supreme Court to Decide if Mueller Probe Details Will Stay Secret

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies on July 24, 2019, before the House Intelligence Committee.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The government’s fight to conceal grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has entered its last stage.

On Thursday the Supreme Court said it will decide whether the D.C. Circuit was right to order the materials released to the House Judiciary Committee in March.

The writ of certiorari, part of an order list containing four other grants, comes nearly a month after the justices blocked disclosure of the documents until the Justice Department could submit its petition.

Democrats have been pushing for access to the grand jury materials since 2019, arguing they are necessary to fully evaluate Mueller’s findings and determine whether Trump lied in written answers to the special counsel’s questions.

Urging the court to turn down the case, the committee highlighted the chance that the grand jury materials will provide new evidence that Trump obstructed justice, potentially leading to a renewed impeachment push.

While the Justice Department has fixated on separation-of-powers concerns, the Judiciary Committee says a potential impeachment trial is exactly the type of proceeding that allows for an exception to grand jury secrecy rules. 

“DOJ has things backwards,” the committee’s brief to the court states. “The only threat to Congress’ constitutional prerogatives comes from DOJ’s newly minted position, which would categorically deny Congress access to grand-jury material for use in impeachments — thereby treating a core constitutional function less favorably than routine civil and criminal litigation.” (Emphasis in original.)

In opposing release, however, the Justice Department denies that the committee has shown a compelling need for the materials, and it has expressed concerns that they will remain secret in the leaky hands of lawmakers.

The agency has said something like a Senate impeachment trial does not justify extending the exception that allows grand jury materials to be released as part of a judicial proceeding.

“That interpretation contradicts the plain text of Rule 6(e), raises substantial separation-of-powers concerns, and is in serious tension with this court’s precedents,” U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in a June petition to the high court. 

Even if House Democrats win at the Supreme Court, the timeline makes it very unlikely they will be able to access the records before the November election.

Calling it unprecedented for the Justice Department to withhold grand jury materials as part of an impeachment investigation, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said it is trying to push release of the materials past the November election.

“I am disappointed by the court’s decision to prolong this case further, but I am confident we will prevail,” Nadler said in a statement. “In every administration before this one, DOJ has cooperated with the Judiciary Committee’s requests for grand jury materials relating to investigations of impeachable offenses. Attorney General Barr broke from that practice, and DOJ’s newly invented arguments against disclosure have failed at every level.”  

The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on the court’s decision.

In addition to the Mueller issue, the justices agreed Thursday to decide several cases that concern the reach of U.S. courts to address conduct from overseas.

In one of the cases, Germany has been hauled to Washington by the heirs of Jewish art dealers who say they were forced to sell a medieval art collection at a significant loss under the Nazi regime.

“We welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the lower court’s ruling,” Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said in a statement. “We look forward to explaining to the U.S. Supreme Court why this lawsuit seeking the restitution of the Guelph Treasure should not be heard in an American court.”

A separate but related case the court granted Thursday will decide whether Hungary must face claims from survivors of the Holocaust who seek to be made whole for property taken from them as they were forced onto trains that took them to concentration camps. 

In a consolidated pair of other cases, the court will consider whether a class can accuse Nestle of having knowingly supported and benefitted from Ivory Coast cocoa plantations that rely on brutal child labor. 

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