WASHINGTON — The chief judge of U.S. District Court in Washington rejected a request Wednesday from a House panel to hear a case seeking to enforce a subpoena for Don McGahn, President Donald Trump’s former White House counsel.
Judge Beryl Howell’s decision ordering the random selection of a judge in the McGahn case was a victory for the Justice Department, which argued that the House Judiciary Committee was “judge shopping” for a favorable opinion.
Cases are typically assigned randomly to federal judges. But as chief judge for the district, Howell was previously assigned the Judiciary Committee’s case seeking grand-jury evidence in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Judiciary Committee argued that Howell should also hear the McGahn subpoena case because the issues will largely overlap as lawmakers debate whether to recommend impeachment of Trump.
But the Justice Department argued that the cases had little in common because the grand-jury case deals with rules of criminal procedure and the McGahn case is a civil-enforcement matter.
Howell’s 11-page decision largely agreed with the Justice Department in holding that random assignment of judges avoids any perception of favoritism. She ruled that the cases don’t “involve common issues of fact” and “involve different claims.”
Howell ruled that “closer examination demonstrates that these connections between the two cases are too superficial and attenuated” to qualify for an exemption to random assignment of the judge in the McGahn case.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was assigned the case after Howell’s ruling.
McGahn, a key figure in Mueller’s report, defied a subpoena in May from the House Judiciary Committee for his documents and testimony. White House lawyers argued that presidential advisers have an absolute immunity from testifying before Congress.
The lawsuit is one of several legal challenges between Congress and the White House, as lawmakers seek to investigate Trump and his administration.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., has said Trump potentially obstructed justice in trying to thwart Mueller’s inquiry, as described in passages of the report involving McGahn. But Trump has argued the investigations are a partisan witch hunt with no justification.
Nadler has dismissed absolute immunity as nonsense. Nadler said that if the federal courts uphold the subpoena, it could open the door to information from other former White House aides.
But White House lawyers have argued that the House can’t compel McGahn’s testimony because his communications must remain confidential as a top aide to the president.
Trump allowed McGahn to meet with investigators for 30 hours during the nearly two-year inquiry. Trump now contends any documents McGahn could provide the committee are White House property and should remain confidential.
Democrats want McGahn to testify about episodes of potential obstruction of justice detailed in Mueller’s report, including efforts to fire the special counsel.
Trump called McGahn at home June 17, 2017, and told him Mueller had conflicts and should be removed, according to the Mueller report. Rather than carry out the order, McGahn decided that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre, a reference to former President Richard Nixon firing prosecutors during the Watergate investigation. Trump later met with McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him again, but McGahn refused.
McGahn later told Trump’s chief of staff that the president had asked him to “do crazy s—,” according to the report.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Random assignment of judge ordered for Don McGahn subpoena case