New chief justice presides over Trump grand juries as courts face bias tests


Washington’s chief federal judge, who has been overseeing potentially historic behind-closed-doors disputes in grand jury investigations involving former President Donald Trump and his political allies, passed the gavel to his successor on Friday, handing over leadership of the high court in the nation’s capital.

Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell is hardly a household name, although her rulings on politically charged cases on her court can have ramifications.

Her successor, James E. Boasberg, may be even less well-known outside of Washington, but he will now decide how far special counsel Jack Smith can go in investigating or questioning the former president. Among his most consequential decisions: whether Smith can compel former Vice President Mike Pence to testify before a grand jury investigating Trump’s push to cancel the 2020 election.

In recent months, federal court in the District of Columbia has been abuzz with secret and not-so-secret proceedings over whether White House aides or Trump’s lawyers can be similarly subpoenaed to testify, and whether the records of a member of Congress can be used by the Justice Department . In addition to investigating attempts to interfere with the transition of presidential power after the 2020 election, Smith is leading a criminal investigation into whether the former president or his allies mishandled classified documents. Howell at least partially granted prosecutors’ request to compel Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to testify before a grand jury in the case about the documents, two people briefed on Friday’s decision said.

The judge ruled that Trump’s lawyer Corcoran must testify, people familiar with the matter said

As chief justice, Howell — and now Boasberg — are appointed based on seniority and serve as the court’s chief administrator, responsible for reviewing the court’s operations in relation to the pandemic, preparing for the Jan. 6 prosecution and resolving urgent legal matters or daily today’s witness security measures in court. They have jurisdiction over grand jury matters, mediating complex disputes over executive privilege, congressional immunity, and attorney-client privilege, all while trying to maintain the court’s reputation as nonpartisan.

They can also improve the administration of justice. Howell, for example, fixed bureaucratic loopholes affecting repeat federal offenders’ access to Bureau of Prisons programs and inmates held for insanity since before 1984. She also made the court the first in the country to adopt end-to-end electronic filing of sealed government motions for monitoring.

Howell said in an interview that it could take time for her impact to become clear — and it could depend on still-sealed grand jury decisions. Some observers said her decisions were related to prosecutors’ access to witnesses and evidence could be as severe as those taken half a century ago by Chief Justice John Sirica, who released notoriously secret White House tapes that damned Richard M. Nixon.

But she added: “I hope that the challenges of the last few years and the way the court has collectively dealt with them, including the criminal cases relating to 6 January 2021, give the public confidence that the judiciary is strong and capable for responding to complex and sometimes divisive issues in a way that is fair, responsive and reasonable.”

Howell said the chief justice’s seven-year term could bring valuable “fresh perspective” and praised Boasberg.

“Judge Boasberg is an experienced and respected judge, with extensive experience in both criminal and civil cases,” she said. “He’s well suited to be next [chief]. And all the judges in this court are ready to help him – as they certainly have helped me.

Boasberg credited Howell for her leadership during the COVID pandemic and two special counsel investigations of Trump, saying she would keep the judge “cohesive” in politically fraught times.

“A challenge I face and will work hard to address is to revive the cohesion of the court that covid has disrupted,” he said, adding that he was determined to continue “increasing those personal communications and also keeping the court collegial , especially amid these politically divided times and trials.”

The broadcast comes after Howell unsealed rulings revealing the Justice Department’s long-stalled efforts to access the phone of Congressman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and search Perry’s emails to Jeffrey Clarke, a Justice Department lawyer in the administration Trump, who pushed the president’s false claims of massive voter fraud, and John Eastman, the architect of Trump’s legal strategy. Howell rejected media offers to release additional documents about the scope of Donald Trump’s legal efforts to prevent witnesses such as Pence aides Mark Short and Greg Jacobs from testifying. while arguing that such secrecy should not last forever.

Howell, 66, and Boasberg, 60, have different styles in public. Howell is a hard loader; Boasberg seems calmer. Private friends say it’s the other way around: he’s the outgoing one, she’s the more reserved one. But they introduce similar demanding approaches to the law.

Howell, who is Jewish and grew up in an army family, rocketed to the chief justice post in 2016 just five years after her appointment, the shortest tenure for a new chief on the court since the 1940s. A former federal prosecutor and chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chief counsel during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Howell was a major player in the nation’s surveillance debates. Her mentor, former Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, called her “steely.”

Boasberg, known as Jeb, is a native Washington resident confirmed months after Howell, whose parents chaired the city’s zoning and historic preservation boards and championed its green spaces. After playing basketball for St. Albans and Yale College, he served as a federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia and a Supreme Court justice.

Boasberg also presided over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2020 and 2021 — overseeing changes following the FBI’s improper wiretapping of 2016 Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Boasberg, who was Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s law school roommate, is known for selecting law clerks later selected for the same prestigious Supreme Court post.

Both Obama appointees Howell and Boasberg became the first new judges confirmed to the District of Columbia federal court in nearly a decade. Ten of the 14 current sitting justices have less than 10 years of experience on the court, and all were appointed by Obama, Trump and Biden.

Several top judges noted that when President Bill Clinton faced an independent counsel investigation in the 1990s, the federal district court split when the chief justice at the time assigned the prosecution of Clinton’s cronies to Clinton appointees court officials.

“It took away the leadership of the Chief Justice [Thomas F.] Hogan to repair the damage and restore collegiality and trust,” U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said at a courthouse ceremony in December honoring Hogan’s 40 years of service on the federal bench in the District of Columbia. Hogan retired earlier last month.

Justice Royce K. Lambert, who served as chief justice before Howell, observed that the Supreme Court grapples with partisan tension. Justices have openly debated what the controversial rulings, including last year’s overturning of the constitutional right to abortion, mean for the court’s institutional integrity.

Lambert said he, Hogan and Howell worked to maintain the civility of the D.C. court, keeping the door open and no surprises when it came to deciding lawsuits, and privately discussing matters that make headlines.

“We cannot allow politics to interfere with decision-making. We can’t let what’s going on in the other branches of government interfere with what we do, and we have to be civil in our dealings with each other,” Lambert said, noting that the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were opera buddies despite their great ideological differences.

Some D.C. federal court judges publicly disagreed with the Jan. 6 ruling. U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a Trump appointee in 2017, memorably questioned whether prosecutors had been “impartial” in their treatment of Trump supporters at the Capitol compared to those arrested during demonstrations in D.C. over police killing of George Floyd in 2020 or left-wing activists who protested Cavanaugh’s Senate confirmation in 2018.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, an Obama appointee in 2014, appeared to take aim at the comparison in a separate proceeding when she denounced a “false equivalence” between the actions of mostly peaceful civil rights protesters and a “violent mob” that sought to change the result of an election. Other D.C. judges criticized Trump and others around him for using the rebels as “pawns” who they encouraged and “incited” to fight.

Trump himself has a long history of attacks on judges, juries and prosecutions — including those in D.C. involving Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and political confidant Roger Stone — and has vowed to pardon the accused on Jan. 6 if re-elected in 2024

But splitting the bench is an exception. In a tribute shared at a gavel ceremony at the court on Friday, McFadden wrote that Howell “has led our court at a time of unique challenges for the judiciary in general and an unusual focus on this court in particular, and has done so with aplomb.”

Howell, she hoped that despite politically charged cases and the uncertainty and disruption of the pandemic, the court’s cooperation during her tenure “has left the court in a stronger place to meet any future challenge.”

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