WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to consider blocking Congress’ access to secret grand jury materials from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The action was a victory for the Trump administration, which is fighting to keep a House committee controlled by Democrats from obtaining material it says could lead to another impeachment inquiry.
The immediate significance is that any decision almost surely will come after the presidential election, a blow to House Democrats in pursuing a potential obstruction of justice charge against President Donald Trump in a possible second impeachment inquiry. The case likely will be heard by the high court in the fall or winter and decided in 2021.
“Unfortunately, President Trump and Attorney General (William) Barr are continuing to try to run out the clock on any and all accountability,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “While I am confident their legal arguments will fail, it is now all the more important for the American people to hold the president accountable at the ballot box in November.”
House Democrats and the Justice Department have been locked in a legal battle over grand jury testimony gathered during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. In March, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the House Judiciary Committee is entitled to the evidence.
The committee contended that the grand jury material is “central” to its inquiry into possible obstruction of justice by Trump and could reveal new evidence of impeachable offenses. If so, the panel said it will consider recommending new articles of impeachment.
In December, the House approved two articles of impeachment against the president. One accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding military aid in order to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into a political rival. The second accused him of obstructing Congress by stonewalling its subpoenas for documents and testimony. In February, Trump was acquitted by the Senate.
But in January, House general counsel Douglas Letter told the appeals court that new impeachment articles were a possibility, pending a review of the grand jury evidence.
“That is on the table; there is no doubt,” Letter told the court.
The Justice Department argued that House Democrats are not entitled to grand jury evidence because they have not said which specific testimony they need or how it would help their investigation. Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote that the House has no “urgent need of the requested materials for a hypothetical second impeachment.”
Not true, said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, who urged the court to hear and decide the case before the election.
“Today’s decision threatens to hand President Trump a victory by default, allowing him to run out the clock on this Congress and hampering its ability to exercise its longstanding power to investigate and hold the executive branch of our government accountable to the law,” Wydra said.
At issue before the high court is a more basic legal question: Is a Senate impeachment trial a judicial proceeding? The lower court ruled that it is, saying the Framers of the Constitution understood impeachment to involve the exercise of judicial power.
A separate but related House subpoena seeks testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a key witness on possible obstruction by Trump. The Trump administration has blocked McGahn from testifying, saying Congress can’t force high-ranking presidential aides to testify.
In February, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled that McGahn does not have to testify, saying the judiciary can’t be an “ombudsman” who resolves disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government. The full appeals court reheard the case in April but has yet to rule.