On its face, Friday’s D.C. Circuit decision in McKeever v. Barr, involving a historian’s request for access to grand jury materials from 1957 for purposes of a book he is writing, might seem to have little relevance to redactions in the Mueller report. In fact, however, the decision turns on the court’s interpretation of a 1974 precedent in which Chief Judge Sirica authorized “disclosure of a sealed grand jury report to aid in the inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee into possible grounds for impeachment of President Nixon.” McKeever, majority slip op. at 9 n. 3; see In re Report & Recommendation of June 5, 1972 Grand Jury, 370 F. Supp. 1219 (D.D.C. 1974). More precisely, it turns on the McKeever court’s interpretation of the D.C. Circuit’s 1974 en banc interpretation of Judge Sirca’s decision. See Haldeman v. Sirica, 501 F.2d 714 (D.C. Cir. 1974) (en banc).
As explained below, this decision is potentially significant with respect to the Mueller report.
The McKeever majority ruled that judges lack inherent authority to disclose grand jury materials protected by Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e) outside of the express exceptions set forth in that rule. Acknowledging the court’s decision in Haldeman was ambiguous on this point, McKeever construed Haldeman as approving Judge Sirica’s disclosure on the grounds that a House impeachment inquiry is a “judicial proceeding” for purposes of Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E)(i), which is one of the explicit exceptions to grand jury secrecy set forth in the rule. McKeever, majority slip op. at 9 n. 3. It therefore concluded Haldeman did not stand as a precedent in favor of a court’s inherent authority to release grand jury materials.
Judge Srinivasan dissented in McKeever. While he noted that the “judicial proceeding” exception to Rule 6(e) “arguably applied” to the release of a grand jury report to Congress in connection with an impeachment investigation, he did not interpret Judge Sirica’s decision as relying on that exception. Instead, in Judge Srinivasan’s view the best reading of the en banc opinion in Haldeman was that it approved Judge Sirica’s exercise of inherent authority to release the report. See McKeever, dissent slip op. at 2-5.
Whatever one’s evaluation of the relative strengths of these positions, the majority opinion in McKeever is, at least for the moment, the controlling law in the D.C. Circuit. Thus, Congress cannot now ask the district court to release grand jury material in the Mueller report based on the court’s inherent authority. The Justice Department likewise could not support such a request even if it agreed with it (which it clearly would not, given that DOJ urged the narrow reading of the court’s authority adopted by the McKeever majority).
This does not mean, however, that Congress has no options for obtaining access to grand jury material in the Mueller report. It merely means that any disclosure to Congress must be pursuant to one of the express exceptions to grand jury secrecy listed in Rule 6(e).