The Supreme Court blocked a House committee Wednesday from receiving grand jury material gathered by Robert Mueller's special counsel investigators, issuing a stay while a legal dispute over the records is on appeal.
The House Judiciary Committee said it needed the material now because it has been investigating President Donald Trump and its work "did not cease with the conclusion of the impeachment trial."
In a brief order, the court gave the government until June 1 to file its formal appeal. If no appeal is filed by then, the stay will dissolve.
When Mueller's work ended in March 2019, the Justice Department sent a version of his final report to Congress, but it redacted, or blacked out, references to information that was gathered by the Mueller grand jury. The House Judiciary Committee asked a federal judge to direct the Justice Department to hand over an unredacted copy, along with some of the documents and interviews the blacked-out passages referred to.
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The proceedings of a federal grand jury are secret, including its findings and any materials generated during its investigations. But there are some exceptions. Courts are allowed to authorize disclosure when they find that the material would be used "preliminary to or in connection with a judicial proceeding."
Two lower courts ruled that the Judiciary Committee is covered by that exception, reasoning that impeachment by the House is preliminary to a Senate trial, which is a judicial proceeding. A federal appeals court ordered the government to hand the materials over by May 11, but the Supreme Court issued a temporary hold to allow time for both sides to submit legal briefs.
The Justice Department said the exceptions to grand jury secrecy rules don't apply. "The ordinary meaning of 'judicial proceeding' is a proceeding before a court, not an impeachment trial before elected legislators."
But the House said it is covered by the exception, noting that the Constitution says the Senate has the sole power to "try" all impeachments, requires the chief justice to preside and refers to a "judgment" in cases of impeachment. House lawyers note that even one of Trump's lawyers, Kenneth Starr, said during the Senate trial: "We are not a legislative chamber. ... We are in court."
The Judiciary Committee also said that the grand jury material remains central to its continuing investigation of the president and that if it reveals new evidence of possible impeachable offenses it might recommend new articles of impeachment.
But the prospect that House Democrats would launch a new impeachment round is remote, said Mark Murray, NBC News' senior political editor. "There's no appetite whatsoever to take up another impeachment of President Trump. In this pandemic, the House is having problems just getting together, letting alone starting another an impeachment inquiry," he said.
For that reason, if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to take the case, it would be to resolve the issue for future impeachment proceedings.