By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday dealt a setback to President Donald Trump’s administration, ruling that the Justice Department must provide a Democratic-led congressional panel grand jury material redacted from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld an Oct. 25 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell against the administration’s bid to keep the redacted material secret.
The circuit court backed Howell’s decision to direct the administration to comply with a subpoena by the House Judiciary Committee for the material blacked out of Mueller’s report. The court agreed with Howell’s decision that the House, in its impeachment investigation of Trump last year, was engaged in a judicial proceeding exempt from secrecy rules that typically shield grand jury materials from disclosure.
“Here, the context makes readily apparent that the need for disclosure is not only greater than the need for continued secrecy but that the district court findings confirmed the particularity of the need,” the court stated, referring to Howell’s ruling.
Trump’s administration has refused to comply with various House subpoenas for documents and testimony in a power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government that ultimately may be decided by the Supreme Court.
In another important ruling, another three-judge panel of the same circuit court on Feb. 28 dismissed the House Judiciary Committee’s lawsuit seeking to enforce a subpoena for testimony from former White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
Mueller submitted his report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr in March 2019 after completing a 22-month investigation that detailed Russia’s campaign of hacking and propaganda to boost Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election as well as extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Barr, a Trump appointee who Democrats have accused of trying to protect the president politically, released the 448-page report in April 2019 with some parts redacted. Some Democrats have expressed concern that Barr used the redaction process to keep potentially damaging information about Trump secret.
The Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena last year seeking the redacted grand jury material as part of a bid by Democrats to build a case for removing Trump from office through impeachment. The House voted to impeach Trump in December on two charges unrelated to Russian election meddling. The Senate, controlled by the president’s fellow Republicans, acquitted him and left him in office in February.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said officials are “reviewing the decision.” The department could ask the same circuit court to reconsider Tuesday’s decision or appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Judith Rogers, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton, wrote the ruling and was joined by Judge Thomas Griffith, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush. Judge Neomi Rao, a Trump appointee, dissented.
The impeachment focused on Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden. But House lawyers told the appeals court in November that lawmakers were still investigating whether Trump lied in his written responses to questions in Mueller’s inquiry.
Howell’s ruling also was important in that it validated the legality of the House impeachment inquiry at a time when Republicans were arguing it was illegitimate.
In another case, a news organization and an advocacy group are pursuing a separate lawsuit seeking to force disclosure of evidence relied on by Mueller in his investigation. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton on March 5 in that case criticized Barr’s handling of Mueller’s report, saying the attorney general’s initial public account of its contents did not match Mueller’s actual conclusions.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)