The Constitution mentions the chief justice for one purpose only, and apparently it is so he can serve as Charlie McCarthy to Liz McDonough’s Edgar Bergen. Or so one would understand from the Department of Justice’s brief in In re Application of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives, for an Order Authorizing the Release of Certain Grand Jury Materials, currently pending before the D.C. Circuit.
Late yesterday the DC Circuit panel hearing In re: Application of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, for an Order Authorizing the Release of Certain Grand Jury Materials issued a scheduling order for briefing on the merits. The expedited schedule evidently reflects the compromise that the three judges came up with after yesterday’s argument. The merits will be heard by the same panel (Rogers, Griffith and Rao) which heard the stay application and an administrative stay will remain in place during that time.
The schedule is as follows:
DOJ brief to be filed on December 2, 2019
House brief to be filed on December 16, 2019
DOJ reply brief to be filed on December 23, 2019
Oral argument is on January 3, 2020 at 9:30 am.
Note that the oral argument will take place two and a half hours before the start of the second session of the 116th Congress. Not sure what that means, but I thought it was interesting.
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.
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.
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.
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).
In our political culture of contempt and pervasive paranoia, it is hardly surprising that Attorney General Barr’s refusal to release immediately the unreacted Mueller report has led many to accuse him of a coverup. So while I agree with Ben Wittes that everyone should chill out and wait to see what Barr actually produces in the next week or so, the reality is that any redactions will raise suspicions.
Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to address this problem. The idea comes from the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998. The House Judiciary committee, which was reviewing the allegations against Clinton in the Starr report, wanted access to the Freeh and LaBella memos, internal Justice Department documents that recommended appointment of an independent counsel to investigate campaign fundraising violations during the 1996 presidential election cycle. The Justice Department took the position that these memoranda could not be shared with Congress because, among other reasons, they contained grand jury material protected under Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e). (It would later turn out DOJ had been rather overly enthusiastic about designating grand jury material, including for example a quote from a Dick Morris book).
In light of the impeachment investigation (and the associated political pressure from Congress), the Clinton Justice Department agreed to ask the judge supervising the grand jury, Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, to allow the committee access to the memoranda. After a couple of attempts (the committee, through House counsel, had to file its own motion after the court denied DOJ’s first request), Judge Johnson agreed to allow the committee limited access to the memoranda. As Peter Baker described the court’s decision: “Each side could send a single staff member to read the memos, but no copies could be made and no notes taken.” Peter Baker, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton 183-85 (2000). That way the committee would have a basis for requesting any additional material it believed was relevant to its proceedings (it ultimately did not do so).
A similar process could be used to deal with redactions from the Mueller report. The court could permit two Judiciary committee staffers (one majority, one minority) to review the unreacted report. They would be prohibited from taking notes or disclosing the contents of the report publicly. If, however, there were redactions the committee believed to be improper or to contain important information, it could ask the court to release that information.
This seems like a reasonable way for protecting any legitimate Justice Department interests while reassuring the public that the attorney general is fulfilling his promise of maximum transparency.
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.
In a decision issued this summer, Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia considered a petition to unseal the transcript of former President Nixon’s grand jury testimony in 1975. For reasons explained below, the court’s decision to grant the petition has important implications for the ability of congressional committees to access grand jury information. However, a change to the rules of grand jury secrecy proposed by Attorney General Holder this week would undercut both Judge Lamberth’s ruling and future congressional oversight.