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Supreme Court Gets Involved In Mysterious Case Involving Mueller Probe


There is a mysterious court case making its way through Washington. It's about an unnamed company that's owned by a foreign country. We don't know which country. In court papers, it's called Country A. The company has gotten a subpoena for information, information it doesn't want to hand over. Here's what a Washington, D.C., district courthouse looked like as it took the case.

AMY HOWE: Teams of reporters had split up and were pooling their resources to try and cover all of the exits and stairways to try and figure out what was going on. And the marshals were sort of herding them away even from points at which they might be able to see reflections of lawyers entering or leaving the courtroom. It was pretty extraordinary.

KING: That was reporter Amy Howe. She was at the courthouse that day by chance. Now, this case is going to the Supreme Court. And so I asked Amy Howe to walk me through what's going on here.

HOWE: There was an order by a federal trial court in the District of Columbia that was holding an unidentified foreign corporation which is owned by an unidentified foreign country in contempt of court for not complying with a grand jury subpoena, a request for information by a grand jury. A federal appeals court in D.C. upheld that order. And when the appeals court heard the oral argument, the whole floor of the courthouse was sealed off from the press and the public to keep even the identities of the lawyers arguing the case private.

And so it was widely believed to be connected to the Mueller investigation. There were other little clues. There was a reporter in the clerk's office who overheard someone asking for a filing connected to the Mueller investigation. Some of the lawyers who were seen leaving the courthouse are lawyers who are known to be working on the Mueller investigation. And then after the appeals court ruled, the foreign corporation went to the Supreme Court on December 22, asked the justices to intervene and put the contempt order on hold.

KING: So the manner in which this got to the Supreme Court is that a lower court had ruled the company does have to comply. The company, which is owned by a country, then says, no, no, no, no. We're not going to do it. We're going to take this to the Supreme Court.

HOWE: That's absolutely right. So they went to the Supreme Court, asking them to step in. And as far as we know - and we don't know much - the request went to Chief Justice John Roberts, who hears emergency appeals from the District of Columbia. And the very next day, he put the content order on hold until the government can respond, and the court can rule on the request. We know from the Court of Appeals order, which is pretty brief and pretty cryptic, but we know that the argument is - we're owned by this foreign country. We're protected by federal law - a federal law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from having to comply with the subpoena.

KING: The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act essentially says you cannot mess with a foreign country in a very specific set of ways. There are some things that you cannot do to a sovereign foreign nation.

HOWE: Exactly. The normal rule is that a foreign country and then foreign corporations that are owned by the foreign country cannot be sued in U.S. courts. There's a specific number of narrow exceptions, one of which is what's called the commercial activity exception. And that, we believe, is what the government is relying on to try and get information.

KING: Amy, why is it significant that a case that might have to do with Robert Mueller and his investigation would make it to the Supreme Court?

HOWE: I think there's a couple of different reasons. I mean, I think if it is connected to the Mueller investigation, part of it is it's just that it's the first time, as far as we know, that issues related to the Mueller investigation have gone to the Supreme Court. We're also dealing with a new dynamic on the Supreme Court since the retirement of Justice Kennedy and his replacement with Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And so Chief Justice John Roberts has become the new center, and how will he vote on this case?

KING: Reporter Amy Howe runs the site Howe On The Court. She's a co-founder of SCOTUSblog, and she has argued cases before the Supreme Court as an attorney. Amy, thank you so much.

HOWE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.