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In re Grand Jury Subpoena

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

November 21, 2018



          Neil F.X. Kelly, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Rhode Island, with whom Peter F. Kilmartin, Attorney General of the State of Rhode Island, and Sean Lyness, Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Rhode Island, were on brief, for petitioner.

          Donald C. Lockhart, with whom Stephen G. Dambruch, United States Attorney, was on brief, for respondent.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Kayatta and Barron, Circuit Judges.


         The Rhode Island Department of Education and Training ("Department") petitions us for a writ of advisory mandamus to answer the following question: May a state government successfully invoke the attorney-client privilege in response to a federal grand jury subpoena? The petition comes in response to a holding by a federal district court in the District of Rhode Island that the privilege is categorically unavailable to a state government in receipt of a federal grand jury subpoena. For the reasons discussed below, we grant the writ and explain why such a categorical rule is not appropriate.


         Given that portions of the record are sealed, we discuss the factual background of this matter only briefly. A federal grand jury sitting in the District of Rhode Island subpoenaed certain records from the Department. The Department moved to quash the subpoena to the extent it sought to compel the production of documents containing confidential communications between Department staff and Department legal counsel. The district court denied the motion and ordered the Department to turn over the requested communications, holding that, as a categorical matter, "the attorney-client privilege does not shield communications between government lawyers and their clients from a federal grand jury." Order at 2, In re Grand Jury Subpoena (R.I. Dep't of Labor and Training), No. 18-4 WES (D.R.I. Apr. 25, 2018). The district court declined to certify the issue for appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), Order at 5, In re Grand Jury Subpoena (R.I. Dep't of Labor and Training), No. 18-4 WES (D.R.I. May 16, 2018), leaving the Department with only one traditional option for gaining appellate review: refusing to comply with the subpoena, incurring a contempt order, and appealing from that order. Reluctant to violate a court order, the Department instead petitioned this court for a writ of advisory mandamus under 28 U.S.C. § 1651 directing the district court to quash the subpoena.


         We consider first whether advisory mandamus is available. The All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651, empowers federal courts to "issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law." One of these writs is the writ of mandamus, which comes in two varieties. The more commonly sought writ is that of supervisory mandamus, which is available when "the issuance (or nonissuance) of [a district court] order presents a question anent the limits of judicial power, poses some special risk of irreparable harm to the [party seeking mandamus], and is palpably erroneous." United States v. Horn, 29 F.3d 754, 769 (1st Cir. 1994). The Department does not contend that this more common form of mandamus is available here. Rather, it seeks a writ of advisory mandamus, which we have described as being available only in "rare cases; the usual requisites are that the issue be an unsettled one of substantial public importance, that it be likely to recur, and that deferral of review would potentially impair the opportunity for effective review or relief later on." United States v. Pleau, 680 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2012) (en banc).

         We have little trouble concluding that the first two requisites for invoking advisory mandamus are satisfied here. The parties agree that the issue on which our opinion is sought is unsettled in this circuit, while (as we will discuss) other circuits are split. And the degree to which communications between government counsel and public employees may be shielded from a grand jury subpoena is of substantial public importance. Significantly, too, the petition seeks our opinion on a rule of law and not on the manner in which the trial court exercised its discretion. See In re Insurers Syndicate, 864 F.2d 208, 211 (1st Cir. 1988) ("[M]andamus, as a general rule, will not issue to control exercises of judicial discretion."). We also see the issue as likely to recur; the fact that multiple circuits have already weighed in on the subject suggests as much, and the United States offers little to persuade us otherwise. Indeed, the ruling below in this very case makes it more likely that grand juries will seek such information. And if the district court ruling remains extant, it may dissuade public officials in other cases from challenging subpoenas or perfecting appeals from subsequent district court opinions that track the holding below in this case. Finally, prolonged doubt about the sustainability of the privilege in the face of grand jury subpoenas could leave many public officials uncertain about how to conduct themselves in seeking -- or not seeking -- legal advice.

         The more challenging question is whether refusing to exercise our mandamus jurisdiction "would potentially impair the opportunity for effective review." Pleau, 680 F.3d at 4. The United States argues that the Department can secure effective review by defying the subpoena, incurring a contempt order, and appealing that order. The Department concedes that a private party may follow such a path without too much difficulty in order to obtain interlocutory review of a discovery ruling. See Alexander v. United States, 201 U.S. 117, 121 (1906). Nevertheless, the Department contends that it has a heightened duty to follow (and to be perceived to follow) the law. For that reason, it argues that its ability to seek appellate review in ordinary course is impaired as compared to the ability of private parties to seek such review.

         We agree with the Department that the option of perfecting an appeal in ordinary course by triggering a finding of contempt may be materially less attractive -- and thus less readily available -- to a government agency than it might be to a private party. In so concluding, we recognize that we have nevertheless twice found a witness's status as a government employee insufficient to justify foregoing the need to trigger a contempt finding as a predicate to appeal. See Bennett v. City of Bos., 54 F.3d 18, 21 (1st Cir. 1995); Corporacion Insular de Seguros v. Garcia, 876 F.2d 254, 260 (1st Cir. 1989). In neither case, however, were we asked to consider a grant of advisory mandamus. Rather, Bennett clearly concerned a request for traditional, supervisory mandamus. See Bennett, 54 F.3d at 21 (analyzing the traditional mandamus factors). And while Garcia did not expressly identify the form of mandamus relief to which it referred, it relied on a Supreme Court opinion that plainly concerned the subject of traditional, supervisory mandamus relief. See Garcia, 876 F.2d at 260 (citing Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. v. Mayacamas Corp., 485 U.S. 271, 290 (1988)). One of the factors required for this court to grant traditional, supervisory mandamus is that the district court order be "palpably erroneous." Bennett, 54 F.3d at 21; see also Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 485 U.S. at 290 (finding traditional, supervisory mandamus available only when the district court "clearly overstepped its authority"). In such a case, a party held in contempt can be relatively confident that a successful appeal in ordinary course will deliver vindication. To obtain advisory mandamus, however, the issue must be "unsettled." Pleau, 680 F.3d at 4. Hence the risk of being found in contempt with no eventual vindication is greater in this case than it was in Bennett or Garcia. For this reason the Department has shown, albeit barely, that the enhanced impediment it faces as a governmental entity to securing appellate review in ordinary course supports a discretionary grant of advisory mandamus relief assuming that all other requisites are well satisfied. See In re The Justices of the Supreme Court of P.R., 695 F.2d 17, 25 (1st Cir. 1982) (granting advisory mandamus relief even though traditional appellate review was available because "[t]o require the Justices unnecessarily to assume the role of advocates or partisans on these issues would tend to undermine their role as judges").

         We are also confident that the other requisites are well satisfied. The novelty of the question, its substantial public importance, and its likeliness to recur -- coupled with the strong solicitude the common law has afforded the attorney-client privilege, see Upjohn Co.v.United States, 449 U.S. 383, 389 (1981), and the heightened federalism concerns implicated in this case, see In re Justices of Superior Court Dep't of Mass. Trial Court, 218 F.3d 11, 16 (1st Cir. 2000) -- weigh in favor of our accepting jurisdiction. This question ...

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