The chief federal judge in Washington overseeing potentially historic, behind-closed-doors disputes in grand jury investigations involving former president Donald Trump and his political allies passed the gavel to her successor Friday, handing off leadership of the high-profile court in the nation’s capital.
Her successor, James E. Boasberg, may be even less well known outside of Washington, but now will 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 overturn the 2020 election.
In recent months, the federal courthouse in D.C. has been buzzing with secret and not-so-secret proceedings over whether White House aides or Trump lawyers can be similarly made to testify, and whether records of a member of Congress can be used by the Justice Department. In addition to exploring attempts to interfere in the transfer 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 a request from prosecutors to force Trump attorney Evan Corcoran to testify before the grand jury in the documents case, two people briefed on the decision said Friday.
Chief judges are designated based on seniority. Howell and now Boasberg serve as a top administrator for the court, responsible for overhauling court pandemic operations, gearing up for Jan. 6 prosecutions, and deciding emergency legal issues or day-to-day courthouse witness security measures. They have jurisdiction over grand jury matters, mediating complex disputes regarding executive privilege, congressional immunity and attorney-client confidentiality while trying to maintain the court’s reputation as nonpartisan.
They also can improve the administration of justice. Howell, for example, has fixed bureaucratic oversights affecting scores of repeat federal offenders’ access to Bureau of Prison programs and inmates held by reason of insanity since before 1984. She also made the court the first in the country to adopt end-to-end electronic filing of sealed government surveillance requests.
In an interview, Howell said it may take time for her impact to become clear — and may depend on still-sealed grand jury-related decisions. Some observers said her decisions over prosecutors’ access to witnesses and evidence could be as weighty as those a half-century ago taken by Chief Judge John Sirica, who famously released secret White House tapes that doomed Richard M. Nixon.
But she added, “My hope is that the challenges of the past few years, and the way the court collectively dealt with them, including the Jan. 6, 2021-related criminal cases, give the public confidence that the judiciary is strong and capable of responding to complex and sometimes divisive issues in a way that’s fair, responsive and judicious.”
Howell said the chief judge’s seven-year term limit could bring valuable “fresh perspective” and praised Boasberg.
“Judge Boasberg is a seasoned and well-respected judge, with extensive experience in both criminal and civil litigation,” she said. “He is very well suited to be the next [chief]. And all the judges on this Court stand ready to help him — as they certainly helped me.”
Boasberg credited Howell for her leadership through the covid pandemic and two Trump special counsel investigations, saying he would maintain the bench’s “cohesion” in politically tense times.
“A challenge I’m facing and going to work hard to address is to revive the cohesion of the court that covid interrupted,” he said, adding that he was determined to keep “increasing those in-person communications and also to maintaining the court’s collegiality, particularly amid these politically divided times and trials.”
The handoff comes as Howell has unsealed rulings revealing the Justice Department’s long-stalled effort to access the phone of Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), and its search of Perry’s emails to Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department lawyer in the Trump administration who pushed the president’s false claims of mass voter fraud, and John Eastman, an architect of Trump’s legal strategy. Howell has denied news media bids to unseal further filings about the scope of Trump’s legal efforts to prevent witnesses, such as Pence aides Marc Short and Greg Jacob, from testifying, while arguing that such secrecy should not last forever.
Howell, 66, and Boasberg, 60, have different styles in public. Howell is hard-charging; Boasberg is seemingly more laid-back. Friends say in private it is the reverse: He is the gregarious one, and she more reserved. But they bring similarly exacting approaches to the law.
Howell, who is Jewish and was raised in an Army family, rocketed in 2016 to the chief judgeship barely five years after her appointment — the shortest tenure of a new chief at the court since the 1940s. A former federal prosecutor and general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Howell has been a major player in the nation’s surveillance debates. Her mentor, former Democratic senator Patrick J. Leahy, called her “steely.”
Boasberg, known as Jeb, is a native Washingtonian whose parents led city-zoning and historic-preservation boards and championed its green spaces. After playing basketball for St. Albans School and Yale College, he served as a D.C. federal prosecutor and Superior Court judge.
Boasberg also presided over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2020 and 2021 — overseeing changes after the FBI’s flawed wiretapping of Trump 2016 campaign adviser Carter Page. Boasberg, who was a law school housemate of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, has been noted for picking law clerks later chosen for the same, prestigious post at the Supreme Court.
Both Obama appointees, Howell and Boasberg became the first new judges confirmed to the D.C. federal court in nearly a decade. Ten of 14 current active judges have less than 10 years’ experience on the court, and all have been appointed by Obama, Trump and President Biden.
Several senior judges noted that when President Bill Clinton faced an independent counsel investigation in the 1990s, the D.C. federal court splintered when the chief judge at the time assigned prosecutions of Clinton’s friends to Clinton’s judicial appointees.
“It took the leadership of Chief Judge [Thomas F.] Hogan to repair the damage and to 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 D.C. federal bench. Hogan retired earlier last month.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who served as chief judge before Howell, observed that the Supreme Court is struggling with partisan tensions. Justices have openly debated what controversial decisions, including overturning the constitutional right to abortion last year, mean for the court’s institutional integrity.
Lamberth said he, Hogan and Howell have worked to maintain the comity of the D.C. court, maintaining an open door and no surprises when it came to deciding court business, and debating headline-making issues in private.
“We can’t let politics interfere with our decision-making. We can’t let what’s going on in the other branches of government interfere with what we’re doing, and we’ve got to be civil as we deal with each other,” Lamberth said, noting that the late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were opera buddies despite their wide ideological differences.
Some judges on the D.C. federal court have disagreed publicly over Jan. 6 sentencing. U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a 2017 Trump appointee, memorably questioned whether prosecutors were “evenhanded” in their treatment of Trump supporters at the Capitol when compared with those arrested in demonstrations in D.C. over the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 or left-wing activists who protested the 2018 Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, a 2014 Obama appointee, seemed to take aim at the comparison in a separate proceeding when she decried a “false equivalence” between the actions of mostly peaceful civil rights protesters and a “violent mob” seeking to change the result of an election. Other D.C. judges have criticized Trump and others around him for using rioters as “pawns” whom they encouraged and “stoked” to fight.
Trump himself has a long history of assailing judges, jurors and criminal prosecutions — including those in D.C. involving former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and political confidant Roger Stone — and has vowed to pardon Jan. 6 defendants if he is reelected in 2024.
But splits on the bench have been the exception. In a tribute shared at a courthouse gavel-passing ceremony on Friday, McFadden wrote that Howell “led our Court during a time of unique challenges for the judiciary as a whole and unusual focus on this Court in particular and has done so with aplomb.”
Howell she hoped that despite the politically charged cases, and the uncertainty and interruption of the pandemic, the court’s collaboration during her tenure “has left the Court in a stronger place for dealing with any future challenge.”