E. Barrett Prettyman Court House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

Federal district judges do not have the authority on their own to disclose grand jury information that otherwise would be protected by secrecy rules, a split Washington federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s ruling came in a novelist’s dispute over public access to what he deemed were “historically significant” grand jury records. But some observers have been watching the case because they believe it could have a broader reach.

Disputes over access to the special counsel’s report on Russia’s ties to the Trump presidential campaign are expected to unfold in Washington courts over the next several weeks. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has pledged transparency, but so far he has only released a four-page summary of the report prepared by Robert Mueller III, the special counsel.

Central to those disputes are whether and how much Justice Department lawyers redact grand jury material from Mueller’s report, which is nearly 400 pages long.

The D.C. Circuit ruled in the case McKeever v. Barr, where the plaintiff, Stuart McKeever, a novelist, sought grand jury records concerning the 1956 disappearance of a Columbia University professor. Circuit Judges Greg Katsas and Douglas Ginsburg disagreed with the lower court’s finding that judges have an “inherent authority” to order the disclosure of grand jury materials, but upheld it’s ruling denying the release of the documents sought by McKeever.

Judge Sri Srinivasan dissented.

The decision is a win for Justice Department lawyers who told the D.C. Circuit that “district courts have no authority to order the disclosure of grand jury materials outside of the terms of Rule 6(e).”

Former Latham & Watkins lawyer Graham Phillips argued for McKeever in the D.C. Circuit. Partner Roman Martinez was also on the team advocating for McKeever.

“Grand jury records are judicial records over which the court has inherent authority. Courts’ power to unseal their records is not, as the government suggests, limited to situations where those records are needed in ongoing litigation,” McKeever’s attorneys wrote in a court filing. “Courts can unseal records to promote public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process generally.”

Read the ruling:

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