A settlement in a seven-year-long legal battle between the House and the Justice Department over records related to a gun-running investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious was publicly announced Wednesday just as similar clashes continue to intensify between the House and the Trump administration.
The deal ends a civil suit the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee filed in 2012 following the House’s historic vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to release some records the panel demanded about the probe, during which law enforcement officials monitored but did not intervene as up to 2000 weapons were illegally sold.
The fight over the records themselves ended more than a year ago, but a proposed settlement ran aground last fall after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson signaled that she would refuse to wipe out her rulings in the case.
Both the Obama administration and the House objected to aspects of her decisions, but the executive branch had the larger grievance, as Jackson rejected the Justice Department’s longstanding position that courts have no proper role in resolving battles between Congress and federal agencies over access to records.
In the settlement filed Wednesday, both sides said they maintained their disagreements with Jackson’s decisions but were dropping their appeals and the underlying lawsuit.
“The Parties agree that because subsequent developments have obviated the need to resolve those issues in an appeal in this case, the District Court’s holdings should not in any way control the resolution of the same or similar issues should they arise in other litigation between the Committee and the Executive Branch, and hereby waive any right to argue that the judgment of the District Court or any of the District Court’s orders or opinions in this
case have any preclusive effect in any other litigation,” the agreement says.
With or without the settlement, Jackson’s rulings did not amount to binding precedent for future cases, but they could have influenced other judges in other disputes like the current one over the House’s demand for an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the records produced by his investigation.
That standoff led President Donald Trump to assert executive privilege Wednesday and the House Judiciary Committee to vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress. The contempt resolution against Barr still needs a further vote from the full House to take effect.
The battle over the Mueller report and other records created a new reason for the House to seek to settle the Fast and Furious case: experts were pointing to it as evidence of how the House’s legal fights for various records that could be politically damaging to Trump could well drag out past the 2020 election without any definitive resolution.
The 2016 and 2018 elections led to a political role reversal in the Fast and Furious litigation, with the Trump administration put in the awkward position of defending secrecy over an investigation the president denounced as a candidate and the Democratic-led House defending legislators’ right to information in a suit many Democratic members of Congress said should never have been filed.
The settlement was signed April 9 by the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Jody Hunt, and the following day by House Deputy General Counsel Todd Tatelman. It was not immediately clear why it took nearly a month for the deal to be publicly filed with the court.