WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Washington on Tuesday appeared ready to give the House Judiciary Committee access to at least some of the secret grand jury materials from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation.
Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, throughout a two-hour hearing, voiced skepticism about the Justice Department's reasons for opposing the release of materials to the committee as part of an impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump.
That was most clear when Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Shapiro told Howell that a federal judge in 1974 -- who sent a sealed grand jury report and evidence to the committee for use in the Watergate impeachment investigation of President Richard Nixon -- would rule differently if the issue arose today.
"Wow," Howell said after a pause. "As I said, the department is taking an extraordinary position in this case."
The exchange about a decades-old case underscored the rarity of such a separation-of-powers legal battle. There are few previous cases to guide Howell in a decision about whether an impeachment inquiry fits one of the exceptions to rules that keep grand jury information secret.
The Judiciary Committee filed the application in July to get the grand jury materials from Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump's actions were obstruction of justice.
Now, the committee argues that the material is still key to an impeachment probe that focuses on Trump's dealings with Ukraine this year, in part because the Mueller report mentions Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort's interactions with the country.
The House filed the application to get the grand jury materials in July. This is the first time the Justice Department has opposed the release of grand jury materials to Congress for an impeachment investigation, House general counsel Douglas Letter said in the courtroom.
But before Howell makes her decision, she has demanded more information and arguments from both sides.
Howell said Tuesday that she thought decisions from 1974 meant that an impeachment trial would qualify as a "judicial proceeding" that allowed the disclosure of grand jury materials.