Courts Do Not Have Inherent Authority to Release Grand Jury Info

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 05, 2019

District judges do not have the power to disclose grand jury records protected by federal law, a federal appeals court said.

In a divided opinion, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals said the law protects grand jury information from disclosure, and courts do not have independent authority to release it. A dissenter said the appeals court should have made an exception in the case for an author seeking information about a missing person.

The majority decision was a victory for the Department of Justice, and may impact the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report.

Grand Jury Records

Author Stuart McKeever had sought to unseal grand jury records about the disappearance of a Columbia University professor in 1956. He argued that judges have the power to release sealed records that are in the courts' possession.

However, the DC Circuit said a district court is not "ordinarily privy to grand jury matters." Unless called upon to request to disclosure a grand jury matter, Judge Douglas Ginsburg said for the majority, trial judges do not have inherent authority to release the information.

Judge Sri Srinivasan, in dissent, said there are exceptions to the rule. For example, the judge said, the appeals court ruled grand jury information be released to the White House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate proceedings.

"Our decision thus settled that a district court retains discretion to release grand jury matter to a House Committee in the specific context of an impeachment inquiry," Srinivasan wrote.

As fate would have it, that may become an issue with the Mueller report.

Mueller Report

According to reports, the decision could play a role in the release of the Mueller report. It contained grand jury information protected by the same federal statute.

However, the DOJ said it is redacting grand jury information from the report. The government intends to release the redacted report to Congress.

That "pretty much guarantees" that the grand jury information will not become public, experts said. Marty Lederman, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the DOJ certainly will not ask a judge to release it.

"But that was never a realistic prospect, anyway, in light of DOJ's current view that courts have no such inherent power," he tweeted.

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