Supreme Court Won’t Hear Company’s Appeal in Mueller Subpoena Case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from an unidentified foreign corporation fighting a sealed grand jury subpoena issued by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The court’s action means that the corporation must provide information to the special counsel or pay mounting financial penalties. It was not immediately clear whether the recently announced conclusion of Mr. Mueller’s investigation will affect the corporation’s obligations and liability. As is their custom, the justices gave no reason for turning away the appeal.

The case, In re Grand Jury Subpoena, No. 18-948, has been cloaked in secrecy. But redacted court rulings and Supreme Court briefs have provided a few hints, including that an unnamed foreign government, referred to in court papers as Country A, owns the corporation.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the corporation’s argument that it could not be forced to comply with the subpoena. The corporation had argued that federal courts have no jurisdiction over criminal cases involving foreign governments.

Were the corporation’s position correct, a three-judge panel of the appeals court wrote in an unsigned opinion, foreign-owned companies would be free to break American laws. “As the corporation admits,” the panel wrote, “under its reading a foreign-sovereign-owned, purely commercial enterprise operating within the United States could flagrantly violate criminal laws and the U.S. government would be powerless to respond save through diplomatic pressure.”

A federal law provides immunity from lawsuits to foreign governments in some circumstances. Even if that law applied to cases concerning grand jury subpoenas, the panel wrote, the law makes an exception for foreign governments’ commercial activities.

The appeals court also rejected the corporation’s argument that the subpoena was “unreasonable and oppressive” because complying with it would require the corporation to violate one of its home country’s laws.

“The text of the foreign law provision the corporation relies on does not support its position,” the panel wrote, adding that explanations from the corporation’s lawyers and “a regulator from Country A” were unpersuasive.

“Consequently,” the panel wrote, “we are unconvinced that Country A’s law truly prohibits the corporation from complying with the subpoena.”

Judges David S. Tatel and Thomas B. Griffith joined the appeals court’s unsigned majority opinion, and Judge Stephen F. Williams agreed with the outcome but not all of the majority’s reasoning.

The appeals court’s opinion affirmed a ruling by Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the Federal District Court in Washington that had held the corporation in contempt and imposed a fine of $50,000 per day until it complied with the subpoena.

In January, the Supreme Court refused to suspend the fine while the case moved forward.

In a petition seeking Supreme Court review, the corporation’s lawyers wrote that the appeals court had broken new ground, becoming “the first appellate court in American history to exercise criminal jurisdiction over a foreign state.”

There was no reason do so, the corporation’s brief said. “Since America’s founding,” the brief said, “foreign states have been immune from American criminal jurisdiction, and yet the United States is not overrun with criminal syndicates backed by foreign states.”

The corporation’s lawyers wrote that Congress and the executive branch had “many nonjudicial tools at their disposal to address foreign sovereigns that commit crimes in the United States,” notably economic sanctions.

Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco responded that such pressure would not always be effective. The corporation’s position, he wrote, “overlooks not only the legal and practical limits on sanctions, but also the threshold need to acquire evidence through grand jury subpoenas in order to determine whether a crime has been committed — including by U.S. citizens.”