WASHINGTON — The Justice Department got a reprieve Tuesday and does not have to immediately release to Congress certain grand jury materials from Robert Mueller III’s special counsel investigation, a federal appeals court in Washington said.
The court order temporarily puts on hold a ruling from last week that required the department to hand over materials the House Judiciary Committee is seeking as part of its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The court order means the issue will not be resolved before Nov. 5, when the final filing from the parties is due.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was responding to an emergency request from the Justice Department, which said in a court filing that it would be “irreparably harmed” without a stay and that “once the information is disclosed, it cannot be recalled and the confidentiality of the grand jury information will be lost for all time.”
A three-judge panel paused the order pending further review but made clear it was not deciding the merits of the case.
“The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the emergency motion for stay pending appeal and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion,” according to the brief order from Judges Patricia Millett, Cornelia T.L. Pillard and Robert Wilkins, who were all nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama.
House lawyers had argued against a delay, telling the lower court that access to the grand jury materials is “essential to its urgent impeachment inquiry.”
“Withholding disclosure would cause severe harm to the Committee and the public by depriving the House of information essential to its ongoing impeachment investigation,” House lawyers said in a filing earlier Tuesday.
The Justice Department is appealing a ruling Friday from U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who sided with House Democrats and said lawmakers are legally engaged in an impeachment process that exempts Congress from normal grand jury secrecy rules. The judge’s initial order had given the department until Wednesday to disclose the material.
In July, the Judiciary Committee filed suit seeking an order for release of redacted portions of Mueller’s 448-page final report on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as grand jury materials cited or referenced by the report. The ruling ordered those materials released and said the House panel may also come back to court to seek additional material if needed.
In her opinion, Howell rejected arguments by committee Republicans that the House must first vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry, calling the notion politically “appealing” but “fatally flawed” legally.
“Even in cases of presidential impeachment, a House resolution has never, in fact, been required to begin an impeachment inquiry,” Howell wrote. In the cases of all three presidents who faced such an action — Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton — the Judiciary Committee had begun investigating or received grand jury materials before a full House vote, the judge wrote.
House lawyers said that the information will help the committee determine whether Trump “committed impeachable offenses when he attempted to obstruct the Special Counsel’s investigation” and that the material is relevant to the investigation of the president’s “solicitation of Ukrainian interference in the 2020 Presidential election.”