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Supreme Court rules against mystery corporation from ‘Country A’ fighting subpoena in Mueller investigation

January 8, 2019 at 5:44 PM

The secret nature of the case before the Supreme Court has prompted a Washington guessing game about the information that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is pursuing. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday left in place a lower-court order requiring an unnamed foreign-owned corporation to comply with a subpoena said to be part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The court dissolved a temporary stay that had been put in place by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. In a short order, it did not give a reason for the decision or note any dissents.

The entity that is the subject of the cloaked legal battle — known in court papers simply as a “Corporation” from “Country A” — is a foreign financial institution that was issued a subpoena by a grand jury hearing evidence in the special counsel investigation, according to two people familiar with the case.

It is thought to be the first time that an aspect of Mueller’s wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign has reached the Supreme Court.

Earlier Tuesday, the corporation’s lawyers indicated that they plan to continue fighting the subpoena, asking the Supreme Court to review the merits of the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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Over a series of 2017 interviews, acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker expressed skepticism about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Last year, a federal court in Washington ordered the corporation to pay a daily fine of $50,000 until it complied with the subpoena, according to court records. An appeals court panel upheld that decision last month.

In a separate redacted opinion published Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit reiterated its reasoning, writing that even though the subpoena targets a foreign entity, “there is a reasonable probability the information sought through the subpoena here concerns a commercial activity that caused a direct effect in the United States.”

The appeals court concluded that the foreign company is not immune from the reach of a U.S. grand jury.

Because the company “failed to satisfy its burden of showing that Country A’s law would prohibit complying with the subpoena, we agree with the district court that enforcing the subpoena is neither unreasonable nor oppressive,” according to the order from Judges David Tatel and Thomas Griffith. The third judge on the panel, Stephen Williams, wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the order.

The company’s lawyers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Late last month, Roberts, who receives emergency petitions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, put the order and the fines on hold until the justices could consider the matter.

The secret nature of the case has prompted a Washington guessing game about the information that Mueller is pursuing.

In the lower courts and at the Supreme Court, details of the legal battle to get information from the corporation have been sealed. At one point, an entire floor of the D.C. Circuit was closed to the public to protect the identity of the litigants.

Related: [Who’s been charged in Mueller-linked probes, and why]

A panel of the D.C. Circuit solved at least part of the mystery when it released its vaguely worded decision on Dec. 18.

“The grand jury seeks information from a corporation owned by Country A,” the three-page opinion stated. The company had sought to quash the subpoena by arguing it is protected from such demands under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and that complying with the subpoena would cause the company to violate its own domestic laws, according to the opinion.

Related: [Prosecutors win fight over subpoena to foreign corporation]

In its ruling, the appeals court was particularly dismissive of the claims that the unidentified country’s domestic laws barred compliance with the subpoena. “We are unconvinced that Country A’s law truly prohibits the corporation from complying with the subpoena,” the court wrote.

At the Supreme Court, the case is simply titled In re Grand Jury Subpoena.

Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.


Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He joined The Post to cover Maryland politics, and he has served in various editing positions, including metropolitan editor and national political editor. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

Devlin Barrett writes about national security and law enforcement for The Washington Post. He has previously worked at the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and the New York Post, where he started as a copy boy.

Carol Leonnig is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2000. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her work on security failures and misconduct inside the Secret Service.

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