Barr on Grand Jury Redactions

I have not watched most of Attorney General Barr’s testimony over the past couple days, but I gather from clips and reporting that he has made a few remarks regarding grand jury material redactions from the Mueller report. I have a few brief comments on these statements.

First, Barr notes, correctly, that under the Mckeever decision no grand jury material can be provided to Congress or the public except pursuant to one of the express exceptions set forth in Rule 6(e). He also indicates he does not see at the moment that any of those exceptions apply. He suggests, however, a willingness to discuss 6(e) redactions once the report is released, specifically with regard to any redactions that might be material to understanding the report or its conclusions.

Barr mentions the possibility of “workarounds” with regard to the redacted material. By this he might mean providing non-grand jury material that would provide the needed context or substantiation to substitute for whatever was redacted. He also may be leaving open the possibility of seeking permission from the court to release 6(e) material, although he appears disinclined to go that route at the moment.

Barr made one comment of potential legal significance. With regard to grand jury material in the report to Congress by independent counsel Ken Starr, Barr suggested that this was immaterial to the current circumstances because Starr was operating pursuant to a statute that “overrode” the provisions of Rule 6(e). Barr here is referring to 28 U.S.C. § 595(c), discussed in my prior post, which provided “[a]n independent counsel shall advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible information . . . that may constitute grounds for an impeachment.”

Barr is correct that in Starr’s view § 595(c) overrode the requirements of grand jury secrecy. As explained in Starr’s report to Congress (see note 18), however, out of an abundance of caution he also sought express authorization from the Special Division to disclose grand jury material. The Special Division then authorized Starr to release grand jury material and provided “this authorization constitutes an order for purposes of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e)(3)(C)(i) permitting disclosure of all grand jury material that the independent counsel deems necessary to comply with the requirements of § 595(c).”

The Special Division’s order does not say that section 595(c) overrides the requirements of grand jury secrecy. It may or may not have agreed with Starr on this point. By issuing an order pursuant to the “judicial proceeding” exception, however, the panel indicated that Starr’s disclosure was also justified under that exception, presumably because it was “preliminarily to” the “judicial proceeding” of impeachment.

Of course, it is impossible to know from the Special Division’s brief order what role section 595(c) played in its decision to invoke the “judicial proceeding” exception. It may have believed, for example, that section 595(c) effectively gave the independent counsel the authority to decide what materials were necessary for the House to receive. (That Starr’s application to the Special Division is still under seal makes it particularly difficult to discern the panel’s thinking on this). Nevertheless, it is hard to see how its order makes sense unless impeachment is the “judicial proceeding” on which it was based. This in turn indicates that a disclosure can be “preliminarily to” an impeachment proceeding even if no impeachment inquiry has yet been formally initiated.

It should also be noted that the Freeh/LaBella disclosure was not made pursuant to section 595(c). Although it is possible that the Justice Department could attempt to distinguish that disclosure on the grounds that an impeachment inquiry was underway (although on a different subject than that of the disclosure), there is nothing in the language of Rule 6(e) or in any of the relevant precedents to suggest that this is a material distinction.

In short, if Barr is merely suggesting that the absence of section 595(c)’s reporting requirement makes it inappropriate to seek here the kind of blanket authorization to disclose grand jury material received by Ken Starr, he makes a reasonable point. If, on the other hand, he is arguing that Chief Judge Howell would be without power to order disclosure of grand jury material in the Mueller report because of the absence of a “judicial proceeding,” he is in my opinion mistaken.

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