Last Friday, July 26, the House Judiciary Committee filed an application with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking release of certain grand jury materials related to the report and investigation of former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The committee contends that the Mueller report “provided Members of Congress with substantial evidence that the President of the United States repeatedly attempted to undermine and derail a criminal investigation of the utmost importance to the nation.” Application at 1. Accordingly, “the House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article I powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity– approval of articles of impeachment.” Id.
Some may view this, from a political perspective, as “impeachment lite” (Twitter wags had a variety of other terms like “impeachment-tinged” and “impeachment-infused”). From a legal perspective, however, I think this is probably good enough, at least for this particular controversy. Here’s why.
The committee’s primary argument is that the court should authorize the release of the grand jury information pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E), which provides “[t]he court may authorize disclosure of a grand jury matter . . . (i) preliminarily to or in connection with a judicial proceeding.” This provision is applicable here, the committee contends, because it is conducting an investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to the president. Application at 30-31. It bears emphasis that the committee does not contend this provision applies to congressional investigations outside the context of impeachment, nor would there be any basis for it to do so.
As we have discussed, controlling authority in the D.C. Circuit establishes that an impeachment proceeding qualifies as a “judicial proceeding” within the meaning of Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E)(i). Specifically, a Senate impeachment trial is judicial in character and a House impeachment inquiry is therefor preliminary to or in connection with a judicial proceeding for these purposes. Application at 28-29.
To be sure, there is no Supreme Court authority on point, and it is possible that the Court would conclude that the term “judicial proceeding” refers to a proceeding conducted by the judiciary, not merely a proceeding that is judicial in character. (Of course, a Senate impeachment trial of the president is presided over by the chief justice, somewhat blurring this distinction.). However, if the Court were to reject the committee’s position in this respect, I strongly suspect that it would accept its alternative argument (currently foreclosed in the D.C. Circuit) that a federal court retains inherent authority to disclose grand jury materials under these circumstances. See Application at 40-41. I do not believe the Supreme Court would hold that there is no legal mechanism by which grand jury material relevant to impeachment can be transmitted to the House (or Senate), a conclusion that would be in considerable tension with the Constitution’s preference (at least) for impeachment rather than indictment of a sitting president. See, e.g., Brett M. Kavanaugh, The President and the Independent Counsel, 86 Geo. L. J. 2133, 2158 (1998) (citing with approval President Nixon’s argument that “[w]hatever the grand jury may claim about a President, its only possible proper recourse is to refer such facts, with the consent of the court, to the House and leave the conclusions of criminality to the body which is constitutionally empowered to make them”); see also id. at 2156 (“any information gathered with respect to executive branch officials that could reflect negatively on their fitness for office should be disclosed to Congress”).
The more difficult issue for the committee is establishing that disclosure of grand jury materials in these circumstances would be for purposes of impeachment, rather than simply for general oversight. As I have written elsewhere, the committee would clearly be in a stronger position if the House had formally initiated an impeachment inquiry. That being said, nothing in the language of Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) expressly requires the formal initiation of any particular proceeding and to the contrary the rule suggests that the disclosure may occur before (“preliminarily to”) such initiation.
Here it is worth noting that while it is the Senate impeachment trial that has been held to be a “judicial proceeding” for these purposes, there is also a strong argument that the House’s exercise of its power of impeachment likewise constitutes a judicial proceeding. Certainly the House’s power is judicial, rather than legislative, in nature. It is possible, however, to argue that the House’s proceeding are less judicial than the Senate’s because the latter performs the adjudicative function of a criminal court while the former performs the investigative function of a grand jury. In any event, it probably makes little difference to the outcome of the committee’s application because in either case the committee must persuade the court that its current investigation is sufficiently tied to the impeachment process.
To meet this burden, the committee points to the following: (1) impeachment falls within the committee’s jurisdiction and articles of impeachment (including in the current congress H. Res. 13, a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Trump) are invariably referred to the committee; (2) the committee has repeatedly indicated in various ways, such as statements by the chairman and a contempt report adopted by vote fo the committee, that it is assessing whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to the president; (3) the House Rules Committee, in its report accompanying H. Res. 430, similarly explained that the committee was considering whether to recommend such articles of impeachment; and (4) the full House voted to adopt H. Res. 430, which confirms the committee’s investigatory authority with regard to the Mueller report and related matters and expressly authorizes it to continue its efforts to obtain information, including by filing an application for grand jury material pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E). This authorization by the House implicitly recognizes that the committee is seeking grand jury information for impeachment purposes since, as mentioned previously, there is no other basis upon which the committee could avail itself of this provision.
While there are no guarantees in litigation, in my view this is a pretty strong case. Given the language of the rule and the past flexible practice in the context of impeachment, the committee should prevail in its application. Whatever the outcome, though, it will be interesting to see how the Justice Department responds.