Federal judge rejects challenge to ‘weighty and urgent’ Jan. 6 committee
A federal judge in California on Tuesday delivered a forceful defense of the Jan. 6 select committee’s efforts, sharply rejecting a bid by attorney John Eastman — a key driver of Donald Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election — to block a subpoena from the panel to his former employer, Chapman University.
“The public interest here is weighty and urgent,” said Judge David Carter in a 16-page ruling rejecting Eastman’s attempt to scuttle the subpoena for thousands of pages of his Chapman University emails. “Congress seeks to understand the causes of a grave attack on our nation’s democracy and a near-successful attempt to subvert the will of the voters.”
Carter said Eastman’s effort to stoke distrust of the election results could reasonably be considered an “influencing factor … for some of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021." He said he would entertain claims of attorney-client privilege for specific documents but would reject Eastman’s blanket attempt to stymie the select committee. Carter noted that Chapman had identified 19,000 documents relevant to House investigators.
The ruling is one of the most consequential yet for the Jan. 6 committee, which is fending off nearly a dozen lawsuits by Trump allies seeking to upend subpoenas for their testimony, documents or phone records. It comes a day after Carter signaled he was likely to rule this way and ordered Eastman to begin working with the Jan. 6 committee to identify any legitimately privileged documents.
The Jan. 6 committee last week won a major victory when the Supreme Court declined to hear Trump’s own lawsuit to prevent the committee from obtaining his White House records, effectively delivering the panel hundreds of sensitive pages.
Eastman was a key adviser to Trump during the frantic weeks between Trump’s defeat and the Jan. 6 session of Congress meant to finalize the election of Joe Biden. He filed Trump’s Supreme Court brief in a lawsuit brought by Texas meant to invalidate the results in four key states. Eastman later crafted a legal strategy to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally overturn the election results during the Jan. 6 session. Pence’s refusal to pursue this strategy, despite weeks of pressure from Trump, Eastman and others, inflamed a mob that had surrounded the Capitol and ultimately overran police and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety.
“Dr. Eastman’s actions clearly fall within the bounds of an investigation into ‘the influencing factors that fomented such an attack on American representative democracy,’” Carter wrote, citing the committee’s stated purpose.
Carter’s ruling also stands out because it’s the first to tackle a key issue raised in nearly every other Trump ally’s lawsuit: A claim that the committee is invalid because it includes no members appointed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The issue arose in July, shortly after the House created the Jan. 6 select committee — over the objection of most Republicans. The resolution creating the panel provided for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to name 13 members — including five after consulting with McCarthy. After McCarthy offered his five selections, Pelosi rejected two of them — Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Rather than replace them, McCarthy withdrew all Republican picks and boycotted the committee. Pelosi only filled one of the vacant seats, leaving the panel with just nine members, two of them Republicans.
Eastman, and many others suing the panel, have cited this dispute as evidence the committee is operating improperly, particularly because rules for subpoenas and depositions require a “ranking member” to be consulted by the chair. Without picks by the GOP leader, they say, there is no “ranking member” to consult.
But Carter rejected this argument, noting that Pelosi “unquestionably” consulted with McCarthy about his picks to the panel, as the resolution requires. The absence of a ranking member is an “ambiguity” in House rules that courts aren’t permitted to get involved with, Carter added.
Carter’s ruling doesn’t have any force in the other court cases moving in Washington, Florida and other jurisdictions against the Jan. 6 committee. But it does set an initial precedent in the committee’s favor. The only other judge to consider these arguments, James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C., indicated he was inclined to rule in the committee’s favor on this as well.
Carter also rejected Eastman’s claim that the Jan. 6 committee was operating as a “law enforcement” body, which would be an invalid exercise of the legislative branch’s power. Eastman cited comments by Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and other members of the committee suggesting they were eyeing potential criminal violations by some of the targets of their inquiry. But Carter said he was unpersuaded.
“Congress has previously conducted similar investigations into attacks on our country, such as those of September 11, 2001, and the War of 1812,” he noted. “In these circumstances, it is reasonable that investigations might reveal evidence of criminal acts or other wrongdoing. … Accordingly, the Select Committee’s subpoena is within its legitimate legislative authority.”
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.