WASHINGTON – The United States Supreme Court said Thursday it will decide whether House investigators can access the grand jury material assembled by Robert Mueller’s team of special attorneys.
The court agreed to hear the case during his new term starting in the fall.
The court action means that the House Judiciary Committee will have to wait several more months before finding out if it can see the material. Democrats in the House of Representatives told the court that their investigations into President Donald Trump “did not stop with the conclusion of the impeachment trial” in February.
When Mueller’s work ended in March 2019, the Justice Department sent a version of its final report to Congress, but drafted or deleted references to information collected by Mueller’s grand jury. The House Judiciary Committee asked a federal judge for an order directing the Justice Department to turn over an unreported copy of the report along with some of the documents and interviews to which the blocked articles refer.
Federal grand jury procedures, including its findings and any material generated during its investigations, are generally secret, but there are a few exceptions. Courts may authorize the disclosure when they find that the material would be used “preliminarily or in connection with a judicial proceeding.”
The Justice Department said exceptions to the grand jury secrecy rules do not apply in this case.
“The ordinary meaning of ‘court proceeding’ is a court proceeding, not a impeachment trial before elected lawmakers,” his presentation said.
But two lower courts ruled that the Judicial Committee is covered by that exception, arguing that a removal from the House is preliminary to a trial in the Senate, which is a judicial proceeding. A federal appeals court in March ordered the government to turn over the materials before May 11, but the Supreme Court suspended that decision while deciding whether to deal with the case.
The Chamber noted that the Constitution says that the Senate has the exclusive power to “judge” all charges of impeachment, requires the president of justice to preside, and refers to a “trial” in impeachment cases. Lawyers for the House point out that even one of Trump’s lawyers, Kenneth Starr, said during his Senate trial that “we are not a legislative chamber … we are in court.”
The Judicial Committee also said that the grand jury material remains critical to its ongoing investigation of the president, and if it reveals new evidence of possible crimes that cannot be prosecuted, the committee could recommend new articles of impeachment. But in an election year, with Congress stymied by the pandemic, the prospect of new impeachment proceedings seems remote at best.
For that reason, the Supreme Court decision in the current case is likely to guide impeachment proceedings against future presidents.