Congress’s Response to Potential Redaction of Grand Jury Material in the Mueller Report

In his letter yesterday to Congress, Attorney General Barr reiterated that “my goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.” Barr, noted, however that “[b]ased on my discussions with the Special Counsel and my initial review, the report contains material that is or could be subject to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e)” (emphasis added), which restricts “disclosure of matters occurring before the grand jury.” Before deciding how much of the report can be released, the Justice Department must “identify the 6(e) material that by law cannot be made public.”

Although the redaction of grand jury material runs counter to Congress’s goal of full transparency for the Mueller report, it may on balance work in Congress’s favor. First, unless the Justice Department adopts a broad interpretation of grand jury secrecy, there should be little need to redact information in order to comply with Rule 6(e). The only material clearly covered by the rule would be direct references to what transpired before the grand jury. Thus, for example, discussion of evidence (such as documents or witness interviews) without reference to the grand jury should not fall within the rule even if that evidence was presented to the grand jury. See Federal Grand Jury Secrecy: Legal Principles and Implications for Congressional Oversight, CRS Report for Congress 11-13 (Jan. 10, 2019). Because Mueller presumably drafted the report with an understanding of Rule 6(e)’s strictures, it is reasonable to assume that the need for redactions will be minimal.

Second, Congress can seek judicial authorization for disclosure of any material withheld under 6(e). It can do this by filing an application with the chief judge in the district where the grand jury was empaneled (presumably the chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, although Mueller also had a grand jury in Virginia), asking for a determination whether the material in question falls with 6(e) and, if so, authorization of disclosure of the material to a congressional committee. Although it is possible that a committee could obtain access to protected material for oversight purposes under the court’s exercise of its inherent authority, its argument will be considerably stronger if it is acting pursuant to the impeachment power. See CRS Report, supra, at 41 (“where a congressional committee has sought grand jury materials in connection with the contemplated impeachment of a specific public official, several courts have recognized that court-ordered disclosure may be available pursuant to the ‘judicial proceeding’ exception.”). Thus, if the Justice Department attempts to withhold a significant amount of grand jury material, it may inadvertently hasten the advent of formal impeachment proceedings.

Finally, the Office of Legal Counsel has recognized that in “rare circumstances” the president’s “Article II responsibilities may independently justify the disclosure of pertinent grand jury information to him and his advisors.” Whether the President May Have Access to Grand Jury Material in the Course of Exercising his Authority to Grant Pardons, 24 OLC Op. 366, 367 (Dec. 22, 2000). It reached this conclusion in part based on case law allowing congressional access, noting “if congressional access to grand jury materials may be independently justified on the basis of its Article I power, it would be anomalous to contend that presidential access to such materials could not be justified on the basis of the President’s Article II powers.” Disclosure of Grand Jury Matters to the President and Other Officials, 17 OLC Op. 59, 68 (Sept. 21, 1993). OLC, however, cautioned that such disclosures not be routine, be undertaken only in accordance with carefully crafted procedures, and that obtaining advance court approval would be preferable.

Given that the Mueller grand jury was investigating possible crimes of the president and his close associates, it would seem inadvisable (to say the least) for the president to get access to any grand jury material withheld from Congress. In light of the OLC opinions allowing such disclosures under some circumstances, including where the president believes it would be relevant to his exercise of the pardon authority, the House Judiciary committee should demand that the attorney general notify it of any special access to grand jury information granted to the president.

And DOJ would be well-advised to keep any Rule 6(e) redactions to the bare minimum.

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