A federal appeals court panel has unanimously overturned a lower-court order requiring Hillary Clinton to provide a sworn deposition about her use of a private email account and server during her four years as secretary of State.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, 3-0, that the conservative group Judicial Watch was not entitled to depose Clinton in connection with an 8-year-old Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking records of details about information national security adviser Susan Rice discussed during interviews in 2012 about the deadly attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
During the protracted litigation surrounding the email saga, Clinton answered written questions under penalty of perjury about her email practices.
However, in March of this year, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the former first lady, Cabinet official and two-time Democratic presidential candidate to sit for a deposition. Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who has tangled with Clinton administration aides in a series of cases for decades, called Hillary Clinton’s earlier answers “incomplete, unhelpful, or cursory, at best.”
But the appeals court ruled Friday that Lamberth’s order was a “clear abuse of discretion.”
D.C. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins suggested it was time to consign the Clinton email imbroglio to the history books.
“Secretary Clinton … provided eleven hours of public testimony before the House Select Committee, and has answered countless media inquiries on the matter,” wrote Wilkins, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “These facts underscore both the impropriety of the District Court’s Order and the appropriateness of turning the page on the issue.”
Wilkins called the proposed topics for Clinton’s deposition “completely attenuated from any relevant issue in this case.”
Wilkins’ 25-page opinion was joined by George W. Bush appointee Thomas Griffith and Obama appointee Nina Pillard.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said the group is mulling its next steps. “We’re disappointed by the decision and considering our options,” Fitton said.
Longtime Clinton attorney David Kendall passed up a chance to publicly celebrate the court’s ruling. “The Court’s opinion speaks for itself,” he said via email.
During Clinton’s four years in Obama’s Cabinet, she relied on a private email account and server for both her work-related and personal messages. The practice led to a storm of controversy that roiled her 2016 presidential bid and is widely viewed as contributing to her defeat by Donald Trump.
In response to press questions during the campaign and in the sworn statement, Clinton said she kept the private account and server after taking over as secretary of State in 2009 as a matter of convenience and not to avoid the Freedom of Information Act or other disclosure requirements. The FBI investigated, interviewed Clinton and recommended against criminal charges, but it did find dozens of messages in her account that officials said contained highly classified information.
However, Lamberth said in his March ruling that the FBI probe and representations by the State Department had not adequately put to rest questions about the episode.
“To argue that the Court now has enough information to determine whether State conducted an adequate search is preposterous,” Lamberth wrote.
While Clinton turned over about 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department in response to its request to return the records, Trump and other Clinton critics have urged continued investigation to track down tens of thousands of other messages that Clinton ordered destroyed after her aides determined they were personal.
While the trove of messages Clinton returned was processed and released under FOIA during the 2016 campaign, messages have continued to emerge from the FBI. Some of the messages were recovered from the emails accounts of people Clinton corresponded with, but the State Department has never offered a clear account of where all the messages originated.
“Even years after the FBI investigation, the slow trickle of new emails has yet to be explained,” Lamberth wrote.
Among the questions Lamberth wanted Clinton to answer: “How did she arrive at her belief that her private server emails would be preserved by normal State Department processes for email retention? Who told her that—if anyone—and when? Did she realize State was giving ‘no records’ response to FOIA requests for her emails? If so, did she suspect that she had any obligation to disclose the existence of her private server to those at State handling the FOIA requests? … And why did she think that using a private server to conduct State Department business was permissible under the law in the first place?”
While the Justice Department opposed Judicial Watch’s request to depose Clinton, government lawyers opposed the move by Clinton’s lawyers to get the appeals court to block the testimony. Justice Department attorneys argued that while they viewed the deposition as unnecessary, the judge’s order requiring it was not so erroneous as to merit intervention by the D.C. Circuit.
In his March directive, Lamberth also ordered a deposition for Clinton’s former chief of staff at the State Department, Cheryl Mills. The D.C. Circuit panel declined, for technical reasons, to block Mills deposition in its ruling Friday.
However, Wilkins suggested the rational for requiring her to testify was equally flawed and the decision left open the possibility that she could seek relief from the appeals court in the future by defying the deposition order.