Howell dismissed arguments by committee Republicans that the House must first vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry, calling the notion politically “appealing” but legally “fatally flawed.”
“Even in cases of presidential impeachment, a House resolution has never, in fact, been required to begin an impeachment inquiry,” Howell said. In the cases of all three presidents who faced such an action — Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton — the House Judiciary Committee had begun investigating or received grand jury materials before a full House vote, the judge said.
“No governing law requires this test — not the Constitution, not House Rules, and not [the grand jury secrecy rule], and so imposing this test would be an impermissible intrusion on the House’s constitutional authority,” Howell wrote.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said, “We are reviewing the decision.”
In a statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he was “gratified” by the ruling, saying that the grand jury information the Trump administration had sought to withhold “will be critical to our work.”
“The court’s thoughtful ruling recognizes that our impeachment inquiry fully comports with the Constitution and thoroughly rejects the spurious White House claims to the contrary,” Nadler said.
The Judiciary Committee had filed suit in July seeking a court order for the release of redacted portions of Mueller’s 448-pagefinal report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as grand jury materials cited or referenced by the report. The ruling ordered those materials released and said the House panel may also come back to court to seek additional material if needed.
Howell said that in determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment, the Judiciary Committee and House are serving like a grand jury, probing allegations of misconduct by President Trump to decide whether they warrant a Senate trial for his removal from office.
“In carrying out the weighty constitutional duty of determining whether impeachment of the President is warranted, Congress need not redo the nearly two years of effort spent on the Special Counsel’s investigation, nor risk being misled by witnesses, who may have provided information to the grand jury and the Special Counsel that varies from what they tell” the House, Howell wrote.
At a hearing this month, Howell called “extreme” the arguments presented by administration lawyers who opposed the House request for Mueller grand jury materials. Justice Department attorneys had said that despite legal rulings during the impeachment inquiry into Nixon, in hindsight, courts in 1974 should not have given Congress materials from the Watergate grand jury.
They said a 1974 federal appeals court decision in Haldeman v. Sirica that upheld congressional impeachment proceedings as excepted from grand jury secrecy relied on an “ambiguous” interpretation of law that no longer is valid.
The case was brought by Nixon’s former chief of staff, who was challenging his prosecution spun off from the legal case against Nixon for the burglary — and subsequent coverup — of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex. Nixon resigned as the 37th president before he was formally impeached.
In her order, Howell called the Justice Department’s position “most troubling” when combined with its policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted and the Trump administration’s “open stonewalling [of] the House’s efforts to get information by subpoena and by agreement.”
The House, Howell said, is “the only federal body that can act on allegations of presidential misconduct,” yet under the Justice Department’s reasoning, “the Executive Branch would be empowered to wall off any evidence of presidential misconduct from the House by placing that evidence before a grand jury.”
The House lawsuit preceded the September disclosure of President Trump’s request to Ukrainian government officials to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 campaign rival, and Biden’s son Hunter.
The impeachment inquiry on the Ukrainian interactions focuses on an intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint.
House General Counsel Douglas N. Letter argued in court that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in announcing the official impeachment inquiry, did not limit it to Ukraine but included an “umbrella” of pending investigations by six House committees.
Howell, a 2010 appointee of President Barack Obama and former Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee counsel, said the need for continued secrecy was “minimal” because the Justice Department had already made redacted portions of the Mueller report available to certain members of Congress and because the Judiciary Committee agreed to negotiations to prevent release of information that would harm any ongoing investigations.
She concluded, “Tipping the scale even further toward disclosure is the public’s interest in a diligent and thorough investigation into, and in a final determination about, potentially impeachable conduct by the President described in the Mueller Report.”
As chief judge, she empanels grand juries and presides over related litigation for the federal district court in Washington, where Mueller’s grand jury worked.