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Supreme Court agrees to hear legal showdown over Mueller grand jury materials

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Washington — The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the legal showdown between the Trump administration and the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee over the disclosure of secret grand jury materials from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In an order on Thursday, the court said it would consider the dispute over efforts by the House Judiciary Committee to see the secret grand jury information, and the justices will likely hear oral arguments in its next term, which begins in October. 

Still, in agreeing to hear the case, it is unlikely the House panel will gain access to the secret grand jury documents before Election Day. A decision will not be expected until after the election, and if President Trump loses the White House or Republicans take control over the House of Representatives, it could foreclose the need for a ruling from the high court.

The battle over the grand jury documents arose following the April 2019 release of Mueller's report on Russian interference, which contained some redactions, including grand jury materials and testimony. In addition to detailing Moscow's efforts to meddle in the 2016 election and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mueller and his team also detailed 10 instances in which Mr. Trump may have obstructed justice, though they did not reach a conclusion on whether the president had done so.

The Justice Department said it would provide congressional leaders and some staff the ability to see the unredacted version of the report, but would not disclose the grand jury documents, as rules governing those proceedings dictate that matters occurring before a grand jury must be kept secret.

But the House Judiciary Committee asked the federal district court in Washington to authorize the disclosure of all portions of the report that were redacted, including "any underlying [grand jury] transcripts or exhibits," as part of its impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump. The redacted information, Democrats argued, is critical for determining whether the president committed impeachable offenses by obstructing Mueller's probe.

The district court granted the request from House Democrats, ruling the judiciary panel demonstrated a "particularized need" for the redacted grand-jury materials as they were relevant to its impeachment investigation. As a result, the Justice Department was ordered to provide the committee all redacted portions of Mueller's report and underlying transcripts or exhibits referenced in the report.

The Justice Department appealed the order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which sided with the House Judiciary Committee in March and ruled the Justice Department had to turn over the grand jury documents to lawmakers. While grand jury testimony is kept secret, there are exceptions under which a court may authorize disclosure of that material, including if it is in connection with a judicial proceeding. The Senate impeachment trial, the lower courts said, is a "judicial proceeding."

The Trump administration asked the Supreme Court in early May to block the House from obtaining the grand jury testimony, and the high court agreed to do so temporarily.

While the House Judiciary Committee has not yet obtained the secret grand jury information it seeks, the Democratic-led House voted to impeach Mr. Trump in December for dealings with Ukraine. The president was acquitted by the GOP-led Senate in February of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, the Justice Department said the dispute raises separation of powers issues that must be addressed by the court and warned that the lower court's decision could inflict damage on the grand jury system.

"To be sure, impeachments occur somewhat infrequently. But given the visibility and importance of impeachment to the nation and our constitutional scheme, neither the relative rarity of impeachment nor the lack of a circuit conflict on the question presented lessens the need for this court's review, especially given the substantial separation-of-powers concerns that the court of appeals' decision raises," Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in filings with the high court.

But House Democrats called the Justice Department concerns about the separation of powers "hypothetical" and said the department has long maintained that a Senate impeachment trial is a "judicial proceeding" for which grand-jury information may be disclosed.

"[I]t is DOJ's new position that would threaten the separation of powers by putting Congress in a worse position than litigants seeking grand-jury material for run-of-the-mill civil and criminal cases," lawyers for the House wrote in a filing with the Supreme Court.

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