The opinion in DC federal court outlines how judges may step in to disclose grand jury matters, especially after enough time has passed and when the public has an interest in them.
Though Chief Judge Beryl Howell’s opinion Monday deals with secret legal proceedings from 20 years ago, it could offer a road map for making court records in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation public eventually.
“The district court is notably absent from this list of the persons bound by” rules governing grand jury secrecy, Howell wrote.
Howell also oversees proceedings related to the grand jury assembled by Mueller.
CNN had asked to unseal the disputes related to Starr’s Lewinsky investigation in February, after researching Starr-era court actions that could shed light on the Mueller proceedings.
The records Howell weighed involved Starr’s requests for witnesses to testify before the grand jury and litigation about a grand jury leak investigation. Among the cases: a tangle over whether the president himself would be forced to testify, and whether the White House had to turn over Clinton’s meeting records and phone logs.
Another case involves the testimony of Terry Lenzner, an attorney and private investigator for Clinton who tried to avoid turning over documents. Lenzner claimed attorney-client privilege at the time — an argument also at the core of Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen’s dispute with federal investigators in New York this week.
At the time, the court forced Lenzner to give fee information to the special grand jury. Howell ordered this case — where no documents have ever been made public — to be unsealed, including the judge’s opinion on the matter in July 1998. Its documents will still have some redactions.
“While the continued secrecy of judicial opinions regarding grand jury matters is necessary to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation, that need for secrecy decreases once the investigation ends and continues to diminish over time,” Howell wrote Monday. “The public has an overarching interest in the accessibility of judicial opinions.”
Howell will still keep secret the names of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury that weren’t previously disclosed, as well as the actual grand jury testimony. She’ll also keep private details about Lenzner under seal.
Starr had previously disclosed many of the events in the court system when he wrote a 1998 report to Congress that recommended the House of Representatives impeach the president. Even though the public could view portions of the court proceedings in the congressional record, the court files remained sealed at the courthouse, where they originated.
The Justice Department this year in response to CNN asked Howell to keep several Starr investigation documents under seal. The department’s lawyers said the court didn’t have the power to make the records public, and that many of them concerned people who are still alive.
Clinton and others involved, through their private attorneys, said they didn’t oppose making the records public, Howell wrote.
The Starr court files won’t be available for viewing in the court’s online records database until at least later this week. The Justice Department has until Thursday to appeal Howell’s decision.