Appeals court rules DOJ must give sealed Mueller materials to Congress

A federal appeals court in Washington ruled on Tuesday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) must hand over grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's investigation to Congress.

A three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's decision that the House's impeachment inquiry justified its request for the sealed documents.

"In short, it is the district court, not the Executive or the Department, that controls access to the grand jury materials at issue here," Judge Judith Rogers wrote in an opinion for the panel's 2-1 majority. "The Department has objected to disclosure of the redacted grand jury materials, but the Department has no interest in objecting to the release of these materials outside of the general purposes and policies of grand jury secrecy, which as discussed, do not outweigh the Committee’s compelling need for disclosure."

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"Special Counsel Mueller prepared his Report with the expectation that Congress would review it," Rogers added.

Judge Thomas Griffith, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, concurred with Rogers, a Clinton appointee. The lone dissenter, Judge Neomi Rao, was appointed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE.

The decision can be appealed. "We are reviewing the decision," DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in an email.

Rao wrote in a dissent that Congress lacks standing to seek court orders for documents held by the executive branch and that the panel should have ruled that the House no longer has a need for the materials that justifies an exemption to grand jury secrecy laws.

"A reasonable observer might wonder why we are deciding this case at this time," Rao wrote. "After all, the Committee sought these materials preliminary to an impeachment proceeding and the Senate impeachment trial has concluded. Why is this controversy not moot?"

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee sought access to the secret records last July in an effort to continue Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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The panel later argued in court that its impeachment inquiry qualified as a judicial proceeding, meaning its request qualified as an exception to iron-clad grand jury secrecy laws.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter MORE (D-N.Y.) applauded the Tuesday decision.

"The Justice Department has consistently provided grand jury material to the Committee in past investigations involving Presidential misconduct — but Attorney General [William] Barr chose to break from that long-standing practice, and DOJ radically altered its position in an attempt to withhold this information," Nadler said in a statement. "The court today correctly rejected DOJ’s arguments and held that the Committee is entitled to these materials.

“The Committee remains committed to holding the President accountable to the rule of law and preventing improper interference in law enforcement investigations,” he added.

While the case has outlasted the impeachment inquiry and trial, House Democrats have not let up in their court battles for records from Trump and his administration.

They suffered a loss late last month when another D.C. Circuit panel, led by Griffith, ruled that they could not sue to enforce a subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Griffith wrote for the majority that the courts cannot resolve conflicts between government branches, effectively rendering congressional subpoenas of the administration legally unenforceable.

Griffith, who announced plans to retire last week, wrote in a concurring opinion on Tuesday that the grand jury case is distinct from the McGahn case.

"Unlike McGahn, this case does not involve a suit between the political branches over executive-branch documents or testimony," he wrote. "Instead, it involves an application for access to records of the grand jury, whose disclosure the district court has traditionally controlled."

The House has asked the full circuit court to rehear the McGahn case.

Updated at 4:52 p.m.