DOJ v. House Committee on the Judiciary


In conducting an impeachment investigation and trial, does the House Committee on the Judiciary act in the same role as an ordinary court that oversees litigation between parties?

Oral argument: 
December 2, 2020

This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether an impeachment trial before a legislative body qualifies as a “judicial proceeding” under Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Department of Justice (DOJ) argues that an impeachment inquiry is not a judicial proceeding, and therefore, President Trump’s impeachment trial is not subject to the exception to grand-jury secrecy for judicial proceedings and can remain redacted. The House Committee on the Judiciary counters that the Committee plays the same role during its impeachment inquiry as an ordinary court that oversees litigation between parties, and therefore, the impeachment inquiry is a judicial proceeding. As such, the House Committee demands access to unredacted transcripts and all other documents that special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury considered. The outcome of this case determines whether House Democrats can gain access to Mueller’s report on President Trump’s alleged interference with Mueller’s investigation as part of their ongoing impeachment inquiry and the extent of the House Committees’ access to information in future impeachment inquiries.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether an impeachment trial before a legislative body is a “judicial proceeding” under Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.


In May 2017, an investigation was conducted to determine whether members of President Trump’s election campaign had cooperated with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In re Comm. on Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice (“In re Comm. on Judiciary”) at 2. The Deputy U.S. Attorney General appointed Robert S. Mueller, III to report on the investigation. Id. Mueller submitted a two-volume report (“Mueller Report”) to the Attorney General in March 2019. Id. The Attorney General released a version of the report to the public in April that redacted all information concerning grand jury materials, among other information deemed harmful or compromising. Id.

The Attorney General stated that members of the House Judiciary Committee (“Committee”) could review an unredacted version of the Mueller Report, except for information pertaining to the grand jury, pursuant to Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 6(e). Id. at 3. The Committee was conducting its impeachment investigation of President Trump and applied for an order to release certain grand jury materials pursuant to Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i), including transcripts and exhibits. Id. The Department of Justice (“DOJ”), which held the grand jury documents, rejected the Committee’s application to disclose the materials. Id.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the Committee’s application to release the grand jury materials and ordered the DOJ to provide these materials because the impeachment trial was classified as a "judicial proceeding" under Rule 6(e). Id. at 3. The district court found that the Committee established a specific need for the grand jury materials in order to prevent inequity, which outweighed the demand for grand-jury secrecy. Id. at 3–4. The DOJ appealed the district court’s decision and requested that the Court of Appeals elucidate the meaning of “judicial proceeding” in Rule 6(e). Id. at 4, 5.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision. Id. at 12. While the Court of Appeals recognized that Rule 6(e) denotes a general rule that matters before the grand jury should not be disclosed, the court also noted that the Rule provides an exception that allows a court to order the disclosure of grand jury materials if a party has demonstrated a specific need and the materials are connected with a judicial proceeding. Id. The Court of Appeals found that a district court has the authority to order disclosure of grand jury materials if they are related to a judicial proceeding under Rule 6(e). Id. at 5.

Finally, the Court of Appeals established that prior cases demonstrated that the term “judicial proceeding” is interpreted broadly and that the Constitution itself classifies a Senate impeachment trial as a judicial proceeding under Article 1. Id. at 6. The Court rejected the DOJ’s interpretation that the term “judicial proceeding” only applies to court proceedings, and not those that a legislative entity, such as the Committee, conducts. Id. The Court also rejected the DOJ’s contention that the Committee’s need for the materials was too broad because it was only being used to fill gaps in the impeachment narrative. Id. at 8. Additionally, the Court recognized that the Committee’s application requested specific grand jury materials and provided a detailed plan for disclosure. Id. at 11.

The United States Supreme Court granted the DOJ’s petition for a writ of certiorari on July 2, 2020. Brief for Petitioner, Department of Justice (“DOJ”) at 1.



The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) argues that the term “judicial proceeding” is limited to proceedings that occur in a court in front of a judge, and excludes proceedings that take place in front of a legislative body, such as the Senate. Brief for Petitioner, Department of Justice at 16–17. According to the DOJ, the references to “other courts” and “parties” in Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 6(e) would not apply to the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee (“Committee”), respectively. Id. at 17–18. The DOJ also maintains that Rule 6(e) refers to a “judicial proceeding” only as a proceeding in an ordinary court, demonstrating Congress’s intent that this term be applied consistently in the same way. Id. at 19.

The Framers’ use of the terms “judicial,” “court,” and “trial” when describing impeachment, the DOJ emphasizes, served only to illustrate the distinctiveness of the impeachment process from an ordinary proceeding. Id. at 23. The DOJ contends that the Court of Appeals erred in stating that the term “judicial proceeding” should be interpreted broadly because a broader interpretation is counterintuitive to the narrow construal set forth by the exceptions to grand-jury secrecy. Id. at 24. Furthermore, the narrow interpretation of “judicial proceeding,” the DOJ argues, requires a clear indication that grand jury materials can be disclosed for impeachment inquiries, an indication that the DOJ points out is absent. Id. at 25. The DOJ maintains that the Court of Appeals erroneously brought forth only lower-court decisions that authorized disclosure of grand jury materials for matters outside of ordinary court proceedings because the Supreme Court has never validated those cases or directly addressed whether or not disclosure of grand jury materials under Rule 6(e) applies to anything outside of ordinary court litigation. Brief for Petitioner at 29–30. Additionally, all of the precedents cited by the Court of Appeals, according to the DOJ, pertained to proceedings that were “preliminary to an eventual judicial proceeding,” which does not deem the relevant case to be a “judicial proceeding” in and of itself under Rule 6(e). Id. at 30–33.

The House Committee on the Judiciary (“Committee”), on the other hand, argues that the ordinary meaning of “judicial proceeding” encompasses any action that involves judicial action being taken in a court, which includes impeachment trials. Brief for Respondent, House Committee on the Judiciary at 16. The Framers’ intention regarding impeachment trials, according to the Committee, was to allow the Senate to function as a court that renders a judgment after litigation, demonstrating that an impeachment trial falls under the ordinary meaning of “judicial proceeding.” Id. at 17–18. The Committee maintains that dictionaries classify impeachment trials as instances in which the Senate takes on the role of a court. Id. at 22. Furthermore, the Committee emphasizes, the Supreme Court, state courts, current writings, and past Senate impeachment proceedings classified the Senate as “sitting as a Court of Impeachment,” demonstrating that an impeachment proceeding is a particular circumstance that allows the Senate to function as a court. Id. at 22–26.

The Committee further argues that other parts of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure support the interpretation that “judicial proceeding” applies to a Senate impeachment trial. Id. at 27. Under other subsections of Rule 6(e), the Committee asserts that it would actually classify as a “party” to a trial because it is an approved agent of the House of Representatives. Id. at 27–28. The Committee maintains that another subsection of Rule 6(e), which refers to transferring a case to “other courts,” is not relevant in determining whether a Senate impeachment trial is a “judicial proceeding” because the rule regarding case transfer does not need to apply to every case, only those that require a transfer. Id. at 28. Additionally, the Committee contends that impeachment trials have previously been classified as “judicial proceedings” because Congress received grand jury materials related to impeachment investigations of President Clinton, federal judges, and Congress members. Id. at 30–34.


The DOJ argues that the Committee has not demonstrated the “particularized need” required to overcome the presumption in favor of grand-jury secrecy. Brief for Petitioner at 37–38. The three factors that the DOJ asserts weigh in favor of maintaining secrecy in this case, outlined in Douglas Oil Co. v. Petrol Stops Northwest, establish that in order to demonstrate particularized need, the party seeking to disclose grand-jury materials must show (1) that the disclosure of the materials would prevent injustice; (2) that the need for disclosure outweighs the desire for secrecy; (3) and that the request for the materials is specific and not over-broad. Id. at 36. The DOJ maintains that the analysis of the factors would force the federal courts to determine the likelihood that the majority would choose to impeach the President, placing the federal court in a difficult position to essentially predict the outcome of the impeachment proceedings. Id. at 37. The federal court, the DOJ asserts, would be forced to take on a similar role to that of the Committee, which would create constitutional strain because this is not a role the Constitution grants to the federal courts. Id. at 38–39.

The DOJ contends that allowing the term “judicial proceeding,” as used in the exception to grand-jury secrecy under Rule 6(e), to apply to a Senate impeachment trial would create further constitutional difficulties. Id. at 33. One of the key components of grand-jury secrecy under Rule 6(e)(3), the DOJ argues, is the district court’s ability to impose protective limitations on the disclosure of materials. Id. at 34. The DOJ maintains that it would be extremely difficult to enforce the imposed limitations on disclosure when the court in question would involve members of Congress. Id. The DOJ claims that enforcing these protective limitations in connection with an impeachment proceeding may be unconstitutional, making it even more apparent that an impeachment trial does not fall under the ordinary meaning of “judicial proceeding.” Id. at 35. Once the grand jury materials are disclosed to Congress for the impeachment trial, the DOJ emphasizes that it would be incredibly difficult to prevent the materials from being distributed further. Id. at 35.

The Committee contends that applying the Douglas Oil “particularized need” factors does not weigh in favor of maintaining secrecy, but rather indicates that there is a range of flexibility conferred upon the district courts that allows them to accommodate specific circumstances in determining whether or not the situation warrants disclosure. Brief for Respondent at 40–41. There would be no constitutional strain, the Committee argues, in applying the “particularized need” requirement because it does not render any part of Rule 6(e) unconstitutional. Id. Furthermore, contrary to the DOJ’s argument, the Committee asserts that there would also be no constitutional strain on the federal courts. Id. at 41. The federal courts, the Committee contends, would not be forced to undertake a role similar to that of the Committee because there is no requirement that the federal court conduct an invasive analysis into the predicted outcome of the impeachment trial. Id. at 41.

The Committee argues that it would be a violation of the Constitution if Rule 6(e), which uses the term “judicial proceeding,” would not apply to an impeachment trial because it would prevent the Committee from assuming its constitutional role in identifying and addressing any injustice committed by the President. Id. at 35. The Committee maintains that the Constitution grants impeachment power to it, and the Committee can only fulfill that role to its utmost extent if it has access to all the relevant information. Id. at 36. Refusing to grant access to the grand jury materials in connection with the impeachment investigation, the Committee emphasizes, runs contrary to the power vested in the Committee by the Constitution. Id. The Committee asserts that preventing disclosure of grand jury materials to the Committee would infringe on the separation of powers because it would impede the Committee’s ability to exercise “an essential check” on the executive branch of government. Id. at 36–37.



The DOJ contends that allowing a broad reading of “judicial procedure” under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 6(e) to include a Senate impeachment trial would threaten the separation of powers envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution, who specifically sought to separate federal courts from political processes. Brief for Petitioner at 35–36. The DOJ explains that in order to grant disclosure of grand jury materials, the district court must determine whether there is a particularized need for grand jury materials in impeachment proceedings. Id. To do this, the DOJ warns that federal courts would necessarily have to weigh the probability that the majority will vote in favor of impeachment, creating constitutional tensions. Id. at 37. This weighing is impermissible, the DOJ reasons, because the Founders intended for the judiciary to have no part in the impeachment process, which they specifically delegated to Congress. Id. at 38–39. Additionally, the DOJ argues that the strong authority of federal courts would be threatened if disclosure was broadly interpreted, as it was by the Court of Appeals, because courts would be required to allow disclosure of confidential grand jury materials for any speculative impeachment proceedings. Id. at 41–42.

The Constitutional Accountability Center (“CAC”), in support of the Committee, conversely argues that, in the interest of justice and to fulfill its constitutional duty, Congress must have access to relevant information for its impeachment deliberations, including the evidence that was presented to the grand jury. Brief of Amicus Curiae Constitutional Accountability Center, in Support of Respondent at 7. The CAC further argues that investigating the impropriety of the United States’ public officers is the Committee’s duty, and as such, the Committee acts as grand jury, creating a special need for obtaining grand jury materials related to their investigations. Id. at 13. Further, the Committee argues that their request is warranted and legitimate, citing a long-standing history of Congress taking on a judicial role and examining grand jury material in impeachment and other proceedings relating to members’ misconduct. Brief for Respondent at 29–30. The Committee contends that, contrary to the DOJ’s argument, permitting the disclosure of grand jury materials for an impeachment investigation would not result in an abuse of the system because the district court would still have the authority to impose limitations on the “time” and “manner” in which the materials were released. Brief for Respondent at 38.


The DOJ argues that there is a strong interest in maintaining grand-jury secrecy as the norm, and the Court must be extremely reluctant to find that breaking grand-jury secrecy is warranted. Brief for Petitioner at 15. The DOJ asserts that, while grand-jury secrecy can be lifted, it can only be done in a discrete and limited way, entirely inconsistent with providing the Committee with an unredacted report of the Mueller Report grand jury considerations. Id. at 34. The DOJ further warns that even if a federal court allowed for discourse and stipulated protections to limit the use of the disclosed information, the federal court would be unable to impose and enforce those conditions on members of Congress, rendering the protections useless. Id.

The Constitutional Accountability Center (“CAC”), in support of the Committee, argues that the need for disclosing the unredacted Mueller report outweighs any interest in continued secrecy. Brief of Amicus Curiae Constitutional Accountability Center, in Support of Respondent at 6. Traditional secrecy surrounding grand jury deliberations, the CAC asserts, has never been without limitations. Id. The CAC explains that the role of grand-jury secrecy is to serve the interests of justice, and that public policy requires that the “veil of secrecy” be raised if the interests of justice so require. Id. at 9. The CAC asserts that the impeachment of a president is one of the greatest and most consequential duties of the Committee; therefore, access to all pertinent information is necessary and requires disclosure. Id. at 21.

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