WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee can sue to force the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II to testify before Congress, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in a 7-to-2 decision that enforcement of congressional subpoenas was crucial to its oversight duties over the executive branch and remanded to a panel of judges other issues Mr. McGahn raised in the case. Mr. McGahn is unlikely to appear before Congress ahead of the election, but the decision endorsed strong congressional oversight powers and Congress’s ability to take the White House to court if an administration fails to comply with its subpoenas.
“Effective functioning of the legislative branch critically depends on the legislative prerogative to obtain information, and constitutional structure and historical practice support judicial enforcement of congressional subpoenas when necessary,” Judge Judith Rogers wrote for the court’s majority. “And it cannot undertake impeachment proceedings without knowing how the official in question has discharged his or her constitutional responsibilities.”
The two judges on the court appointed by President Trump recused themselves from the case.
The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Mr. McGahn in April 2019 as part of its investigation into possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump. He was a key witness for the inquiry conducted by the former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into the possible obstruction of justice and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. McGahn told the special counsel that the president ordered him to have the Justice Department dismiss Mr. Mueller, and when he refused and threatened to quit, Mr. Trump backed off. Later, the president ordered him to deny that he had ever asked and issue a memo saying as such. He threatened to fire Mr. McGahn if he failed to comply.
The committee sued Mr. McGahn, who left the White House in 2018, when the administration directed him not to appear, asking the court to quash the claims that Mr. Trump’s aides are “absolutely immune” from its subpoenas.
A lower court had ordered Mr. McGahn to comply with the subpoena and issued a scathing dismissal of the administration’s arguments. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington called them “fiction,” adding, “Presidents are not kings.”
A three-judge panel from the court of appeals later reversed that decision, ruling that the judiciary could not intervene in the matter. The decision on Friday from the en banc court revived the lawsuit and found that the House Judiciary Committee had standing.
In the wake of the court’s decision, congressional Democrats celebrated the ruling. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “a victory for the rule of law.” In a statement, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler, said it was “a blow against the wall of impunity that President Trump has tried to build for himself.”
Still, Mr. McGahn is unlikely to testify before Congress in the near future. The court remanded other issues in the case to the three-judge panel, and the Justice Department said that it would continue to fight the subpoena in court.
The circuit court also ruled in a separate case on Friday, concerning the administration’s ability to divert funds appropriated by Congress to the border wall. The House had sued the administration, arguing that it usurped legislative powers by identifying more money than Congress had allocated. The decision in Mr. McGahn’s case established that the judiciary could intervene in this case as well, the court ruled.
The Justice Department said it also planned to fight the border wall suit in court.
“While we strongly disagree with the standing ruling in McGahn, the en banc court properly recognized that we have additional threshold grounds for dismissal of both cases, and we intend to vigorously press those arguments before the panels hearing those cases,” the department’s spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, wrote in a statement.