In her landmark, 75-page decision filed on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell did much more than simply grant a motion filed by the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) to compel the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide it with grand jury materials from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe that had been previously concealed. In that same order, the court systematically demolished every quasi-legal objection the DOJ and White House have raised in their specious efforts to interfere with an ongoing and lawful impeachment inquiry.
The core question raised by HJC's motion was whether the court should order the DOJ to release pertinent grand jury materials in accordance with Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Although grand jury testimony and exhibits are ordinarily kept secret, Rule 6(e) authorizes a court to order the disclosure of such materials "preliminarily to" or "in connection with a judicial proceeding" when there is a "particularized need" for disclosure.
Judge Howell suggested that a House impeachment inquiry, in and of itself, may be considered a "judicial proceeding". She concluded, however, that the court did not have to reach that issue because the HJC was correct in its assertion that its impeachment inquiry was "preliminary to" a judicial proceeding.
In her erudite decision, Howell cited historical practice, the Federalist Papers, the text of the Constitution, and both Supreme Court and binding DC Circuit Court of Appeals precedent. All of these make it abundantly clear: U.S. Senate impeachment trials are "judicial proceedings". Indeed, the DOJ's contrary position is not only at odds with the appellate decision in Haldeman v. Sirica (1974) but also with the DOJ's own legal position in that Watergate-era decision. The DOJ was unable to satisfactorily explain why, under Attorney General William P. Barr, it had changed its previous, long-standing legal position.
The "particularized need" to release the materials arises, in this instance, because Mueller, in deference to the opinions of the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that a sitting President may not be indicted,* refrained from reaching conclusions about the legality or illegality of the President's conduct. "This," the court observed, "leaves the House as the only federal body that can act on allegations of presidential misconduct." Yet, the court observed, "under the DOJ's reading of Rule 6(e), the Executive Branch would be empowered to wall off any evidence of presidential misconduct from the House by placing that evidence before a grand jury."
The DOJ's contentions were, thus, not simply wrong but untenable. "In carrying out the weighty constitutional duty of determining whether impeachment of the President is warranted," Judge Howell observed at the outset of her opinion, "Congress need not redo the nearly two years of effort spent on the Special Counsel's investigation, nor risk being mislead by witnesses, who may have provided information to the grand jury and the Special Counsel that varies with what they tell HJC."
Had she stopped there, Judge Howell's ruling would be significant. Her demolition of every argument against the validity of the impeachment inquiry that has been presented by the DOJ, by the White House and by some Republican members of Congress, however, was nothing short of breathtaking...