In the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the Trump administration has recently taken the stance that apparently they view the inquiry as invalid in some way, and are refusing to participate.

If the administration's opposition continues, one could foresee either the House of Representatives taking the Executive to court to try and compel compliance, or perhaps the other way around, the Executive suing Congress to force them to stop or to challenge a hypothetical impeachment conviction in the Senate.

Ordinarily unresolved legal conflicts can potentially rise up to the US Supreme Court for an eventual decision. However since impeachment is a specific power granted to Congress in the Constitution, does the Supreme Court have any ability to rule on such matters? According to the constitution, the House has the "sole power of impeachment" and the Senate has the "sole power to try all impeachments" which sounds like it might exclude the Court from having a role.

Have there been any historical precedents which shed light on this one way or another?

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    The House of Representatives has not taken a position on the impeachment inquiry. Oct 11, 2019 at 13:31
  • Possibly answered here Oct 11, 2019 at 13:39
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    This question could be improved if you provided clarity by what you define as "impeachment matters". The distinction might be relative to (for example) enforcement of a subpoena generally.
    – BobE
    Oct 11, 2019 at 14:42
  • @BobE thanks that is a good point. I'll give some thought how to word that better... Oct 11, 2019 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


There are some relevant precedents.

One is related to the powers of Congress to subpoena testimony and materials: McGrain v. Daugherty which occurred as a consequence of the Teapot Dome scandal, in the 1920s:

In the case, the Supreme Court held for the first time that under the Constitution, Congress has the power to compel witnesses to appear and provide testimony.

Another is Nixon v. United States (1993), which is not about president Nixon, but about judge Walter Nixon who challenged in courts his impeachment and removal from office by Congress. Basically the Supreme Court ruled that it had no power to substantively review the impeachment trial, but some justices sorta reserved their right to intervene in case of flagrant abuse by Congress:

The court's decision was unanimous, but four separate opinions were published. The majority opinion, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that the courts may not review the impeachment and trial of a federal officer because the Constitution reserves that function to a coordinate political branch. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution gives the Senate the "sole power to try all impeachments." Because of the word sole it is clear that the judicial branch was not to be included. Furthermore, because the word try was originally understood to include factfinding committees, there was a textually demonstrable commitment to give broad discretion to the Senate in impeachments.

Furthermore the Framers believed that representatives of the people should try impeachments, and the Court was too small to justly try impeachments. Also, the judicial branch is "checked" by impeachments, so judicial involvement in impeachments might violate the doctrine of the separation of powers.

The Court further ruled that involving the judiciary would prevent finality without clear remedy and bias post-impeachment criminal or civil prosecutions, which the Constitution explicitly allows.

Justices Byron White, Harry Blackmun, and David Souter concurred, but voiced concern that the Court was foreclosing the area for review. While they found that the Senate had done all that was constitutionally required, they were concerned that the Court should have the power to review cases in which the Senate removed an impeached officer summarily without a hearing, or through some arbitrary process such as "a coin toss."

An important feature of this case is how it diverges from Powell v. McCormack (1969). In Powell, a grant of discretionary power to Congress was deemed to be justiciable because it required a mere "interpretation" of the Constitution.

(As a footnote to the 2nd para in that quote, there was a supreme justice, Abe Fortas who resigned while under impeachment.)

Some people also bring up United States v. Nixon which is related to president Nixon resigning under threat of impeachment, but this Supreme Court case involved Nixon being forced to turn over materials (tapes in particular) for use in a criminal trial (against the perpetrators of the Watergate intrusion). The tapes however were daming enough for Nixon to eventually resign under threat of impeachment, a couple of weeks later.

Some commentary on the latter:

The Supreme Court has never held that executive privilege applies in the impeachment context. Instead, it created the privilege in the context of a dispute about discovery of communications between President Nixon and White House advisors in a criminal case not aimed at Nixon himself, but at his advisors and campaign staff. Nixon was only an unindicated co-conspirator in that case. Because of the case’s context, the Court focused on balancing the President’s confidentiality interests against the judicial system’s need to reach a just verdict in a criminal case.

In the context of a criminal case, it held that the privilege cannot trump the need to disclose information essential to reaching a just verdict. If executive privilege applied in the impeachment context it could not block disclosure of information essential to the impeachment inquiry.


Does the US Supreme Court have the authority to rule on impeachment matters?

Yes, currently, Democrats face consequences of skipping floor impeachment vote discusses the attempt by the House to access the grand jury records from the Mueller investigation.

The White House, in a letter Tuesday criticized as advancing a legally flimsy argument, told the House it would not participate in an impeachment inquiry that hasn’t been authorized by the full House — which they argue means it isn’t “a valid impeachment proceeding.”

And a federal judge, hearing arguments Tuesday about whether the House Judiciary Committee should get grand jury materials from the special counsel report from Robert S. Mueller III as part of an impeachment inquiry, questioned when she could know such an inquiry had begun if there wasn’t a floor vote.

“Where are you suggesting I should draw lines?” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell asked House General Counsel Douglas Letter.


The issue of when the House is in an official impeachment inquiry came up Tuesday in federal court. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, filed a brief in the House application to obtain normally secret grand jury material to point out that prior presidential impeachments were authorized with a floor vote.

Collins wrote that the House would be able to get the grand jury material if the full House voted to authorize a formal impeachment proceeding, but that hasn’t happened.

“Without an explicit authorization from the full House, the Court has no determinative measure of when an official impeachment proceeding has begun and when the Committee is merely exercising its normal oversight powers,” Collins wrote. “Votes — not words or press conferences by Members, the Chairman, or the Speaker — are the mechanism through which Congress acts.”

Howell asked about that Collins argument, saying he’s “got a very clear line.” Letter, the House general counsel, responded that the House is in a formal impeachment inquiry “because the House says it is. The speaker of the House has said it is.” And lawmakers are spending “one heck of a lot of time” on impeachment, Letter added.

The court is required to decide whether the House is conducting an impeachment inquiry (a legal matter) under Federal Rules for Criminal Procedure Rule 6(e)(3) before releasing the grand jury records.

Rule 6(e)(3)

(E) The court may authorize disclosure-at a time, in a manner, and subject to any other conditions that it directs- of a grand-jury matter:

(i) preliminarily to or in connection with a judicial proceeding

Article III, Section 2:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, ...

It being that cases regarding impeachment may arise under the Constitution, the Court may have a say. What the Court may say is limited by the Constitution.


Judicial Review of Impeachments

It was long assumed that no judicial review of the impeachment process was possible, that impeachment presents a true “political question” case, i.e., that the Constitution’s conferral on the Senate of the “sole” power to try impeachments is a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of trial procedures to the Senate to decide without court review. That assumption was not contested until very recently, when Judges Nixon and Hastings challenged their Senate convictions.907

In the Judge Nixon case, the Court held that a claim to judicial review of an issue arising in an impeachment trial in the Senate presents a nonjusticiable “political question.” Specifically, the Court rejected a claim that the Senate had departed from the meaning of the word “try” in the impeachment clause by relying on a special committee to take evidence, including testimony. But the Court’s “political question” analysis has broader application, and appears to place the whole impeachment process off limits to judicial review.

907 Both judges challenged the use under Rule XI of a trial committee to hear the evidence and report to the full Senate, which would then carry out the trial. The rule was adopted in the aftermath of an embarrassingly sparse attendance at the trial of Judge Louderback in 1935. National Comm. Report, supra at 50–53, 54– 57; Grimes, supra at 1233–37. In the Nixon case, the lower courts held the issue to be non-justiciable (Nixon v. United States, 744 F. Supp. 9 (D.D.C. 1990), aff’d, 938 F.2d 239 (D.C. Cir. 1991), but a year later a district court initially ruled in Judge Hastings’ favor. Hastings v. United States, 802 F. Supp. 490 (D.D.C. 1992), vacated, 988 F.2d 1280 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

While Judicial review of impeachments is not available, certain subpoenas, as part of the whole impeachment process may be questioned in court.

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    in summary: Review of impeachment and process are NOT within the Judicial jurisdiction, while some of the details (like compelling testimony) ARE within Judicial jurisdiction.
    – BobE
    Oct 11, 2019 at 14:47
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    @BobE - I think may be rather than ARE. It is up to the Court to decide. Central to my answer is that nothing is off-limits until the Supreme Court says so.
    – Rick Smith
    Oct 11, 2019 at 14:55
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    I don't understand downvotes without comments. Especially on such a detailed answer. Personally if I'm ever thinking of downvoting something I'll leave a comment FIRST and give the poster a change to respond / clarify / improve first. Oct 11, 2019 at 14:56
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    Downvoting because the first half is irrelevant to the question - whether or not the House is currently conducting an impeachment inquiry doesn't change whether or not SCOTUS is able to rule on impeachment-related matters. Setting that aside, I'm on the fence about downvoting the second half because it does a great job of saying that impeachments are outside of judicial review, and then ends with an unsourced claim that certain subpoenas can be questioned. I suspect that that answer is correct, but there's no support for it.
    – Bobson
    Oct 11, 2019 at 16:41
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    @Bobson - The Supreme Court is the most visible part of the judicial power. The judicial power is vested in one supreme court and inferior courts. Questions referencing the Supreme Court often imply the judicial power. I answered based on whether the judicial power extends to impeachment matters. It does. To the best of my knowledge, all such cases were resolved in district courts. That a subpoena can be questioned was given in the first part were it is happening now. I wrote may in the last part because a decision has not been made.
    – Rick Smith
    Oct 11, 2019 at 18:05

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