Oral Argument: In Re Application of the Committee on the Judiciary

The D.C. Circuit panel (Rogers, Griffith and Rao) heard arguments this morning on whether to stay Chief Judge Howell’s order granting the House Judiciary Committee access to certain grand jury material related to the Mueller report. The three issues discussed were (1) whether the district court erred in holding that impeachment was a “judicial proceeding” within the meaning of Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e); (2) whether the committee had made an adequate showing of particularized need with respect to the materials in question; and (3) whether there would be irreparable harm from disclosing the material to the committee. It is hard to say what the panel is likely to do, though my guess is that it will probably not deny a stay outright.

On the first issue, Judge Griffith seemed to believe that existing D.C. Circuit precedent establishes that impeachment is a judicial proceeding within the meaning of Rule 6(e), and that only the en banc court would be able to revisit that issue. Although Griffith did not tip his hand as to whether he would ultimately side with the House on the merits of that issue, I did not hear anything in the argument to suggest he had changed his mind on existing precedent. Given that Judge Rogers was clearly sympathetic to the House’s position, this suggests that a majority of the panel is unlikely to grant a stay based on this argument.

Judge Rao questioned whether any court involvement in impeachment would run afoul of Supreme Court precedent that impeachment is solely a question for the Congress. Her theory seemed to be that this precedent prohibited the courts from even assisting the House or Senate in obtaining information for impeachment purposes. Although Judge Griffith expressed some interest in this theory, I think House Counsel Doug Letter did a nice job at the opening of his argument in shooting it down. In any event, I assume that Griffith would view that also as something that would have to be addressed by the en banc court.

The second issue appeared to be stronger for the Justice Department. All three judges had some concerns about whether the district court had adequately determined whether the committee had a particularized need for each piece of grand jury evidence that the court had ordered released. While there was not a clear consensus on how the court should go about that task, it appeared that there was enough uncertainty about it that the court would be reluctant to let the district court’s ruling proceed without further scrutiny.

The Justice Department lawyer, Mark Freeman, also seemed to make some headway on the third issue. While Griffith initially expressed some skepticism that there would be any irreparable harm in allowing the committee to gain access to the grand jury material, Freeman argued that once the material was disclosed, it would be impossible for the courts to enforce any restrictions on what the committee did with it (Letter more or less conceded that this was the case).

Although it is possible that the panel will simply deny the stay, my impression is that this is less likely. Instead, it will probably either grant the stay pending a decision on the merits (which would be heard by a different panel) or itself immediately proceed to address the merits, which would obviate the need for a stay. (The latter possibility was suggested by Letter). If the panel itself reaches the merits, my guess is that it will either affirm Chief Judge Howell’s ruling or remand for more specific findings with regard to the committee’s need for the information in question.

One final possibility was raised by Judge Griffith. He suggested that the problem with regard to controlling further dissemination of the grand jury material could be addressed by limiting access to “counsel” (by which he meant lawyers in the House Counsel’s office). Letter agreed with this suggestion but noted that it would have to include committee counsel as well, as they are the ones with the relevant substantive knowledge regarding what material is relevant to the impeachment inquiry.

This is of course exactly the Freeh-LaBella procedure that I suggested seven months ago (see here and here). Allowing access to a limited number of congressional counsel, who will fully understand that any further disclosure without the court’s permission will subject them to serious sanctions, allows the committee to identify any information for which it has a particularized need without jeopardizing the confidentiality of the information. This approach makes the most sense, which is why it probably won’t happen. But kudos to Judge Griffith, the former senate legal counsel, for proposing a solution that would actually meet the legitimate needs of all three branches.

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