Gavel to Pass to New Chief Judge Overseeing Grand Jury in Trump Inquiry
WASHINGTON — The windows of the chambers of the chief judge of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia overlook the Capitol grounds, a stately vista that turned into a crime scene on Jan. 6, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob attacked Congress in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
The chief judge, Beryl A. Howell, has spent considerable time in the two years since ruminating on what happened outside her windows, including crafting a series of secret rulings that have shaped the pace and trajectory of the inquiry into former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to cling to power. But her term ends this week as a new chief judge, James E. Boasberg, takes over the second-floor offices at the courthouse — and a key behind-the-scenes role overseeing the grand jury that is hearing testimony in the investigation.
The two jurists will hold a passing-the-gavel ceremony on Friday, dropping Judge Boasberg into tangled disputes over executive privilege and other grand jury issues central to the federal special counsel investigation into the events surrounding Jan. 6, along with Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents after leaving office.
There is no obvious reason to believe that the turnover will bring a major new approach: Both are experienced jurists and Obama appointees, and in handing down sentences to ordinary Jan. 6 defendants, neither has been a particularly harsh nor usually lenient outlier.
Still, as their colleague Judge Randolph D. Moss noted, analyzing what the turnover could mean for oversight of the investigation is hard because “even the other judges on the court don’t have much of an insight into what has been going on in the grand jury.”
But some word has filtered out from the grand jury room that Judge Howell dispatched with claims of privilege that Mr. Trump mounted in an unsuccessful attempt to block testimony by two aides to former Vice President Mike Pence, Greg Jacob and Marc Short. (Judge Howell recently rejected a request by The New York Times and Politico to unseal her executive privilege rulings and associated materials related to the Jan. 6 grand jury.)
The turnover comes at a particularly delicate time for Mr. Trump, who in addition to the federal investigations being overseen by Jack Smith, the special counsel, faces possible indictment soon on unrelated state charges in New York and is also under scrutiny by a prosecutor in Georgia examining efforts to reverse his election loss there.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
In an interview, Judge Howell expressed confidence in her colleague while cautiously avoiding specific grand-jury issues that remain secret.
“The grand jury presents oftentimes novel issues and issues that deal with high-profile individuals, generating an enormous strobe light of press attention,” she said. “Judge Boasberg has the seasoning on the bench, the legal expertise, and the ability to manage and juggle multiple matters that makes him very well suited to be the next chief judge.”
For his part, Judge Boasberg praised Judge Howell, who will stay on the bench as a regular district court judge after the conclusion of her legally prescribed seven-year term as its chief. In addition to supervising grand juries, the chief judge administers the Federal District Court system in the capital. That meant issuing dozens of orders that created rules for the coronavirus pandemic, like postponing jury trials, wearing masks and convening remote hearings.
“I think she did a terrific job of guiding the court through Covid, and the dislocation that it brought,” Judge Boasberg said of Judge Howell. “She also has had to contend with two complicated special counsel investigations and all of the grand jury work that that entails. We were lucky to have her at the helm during this period.”
Now 60, Judge Boasberg — who goes by Jeb — grew up in Washington and is something of a towering figure in the city’s legal establishment: a former basketball player at St. Albans School and then Yale College, he is about 6 feet, 6 inches tall. He remains an enthusiast: Judge Casey Cooper said the two were planning to attend the Ivy League basketball tournament together at Princeton University last weekend.
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Judge Boasberg is also a former homicide prosecutor in Washington who has been a judge for more than 20 years. He has bipartisan credentials: President George W. Bush appointed him in 2002 to the D.C. Superior Court, which handles state court-style criminal and civil cases in Washington, before President Barack Obama elevated him in 2011 to the Federal District Court.
His wife, Liddy Manson, is a nonprofit consultant and former consumer tech executive; they have three children, a son and twin daughters. Fellow judges, lawyers and friends described Judge Boasberg as unusually outgoing — a “foodie,” in the words of the former federal prosecutor Amy Jeffress, who called him “very affable, very sociable, very funny” — as well as a voracious reader.
“As he is walking along, he has his nose in a book,” Judge Moss said. “And if you want to know what the new things out are to read, Jeb will tell you the last 10 big things and what he thought of them.”
One colleague, Judge Dabney L. Friedrich said she had known Judge Boasberg since they overlapped at Yale Law School. After Mr. Trump appointed her to the district court in 2017, she said, he invited her to watch his court to see how he picked juries and handled issues. She said he ran his courtroom with unusual efficiency and dealt deftly with people.
“He gets to the crux of the problem quickly, doesn’t get bogged down in details, has a lot of common sense and communicates clearly,” Judge Friedrich said, adding that he was “calm under pressure and seems unflappable to me.”
Some of Judge Boasberg’s higher-profile rulings include a 2022 decision allowing an antitrust challenge to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to proceed; a 2020 decision shutting down the Dakota Access Pipeline for environmental review reasons; and 2018 and 2019 decisions blocking Medicaid work requirements that the Trump administration had sought to impose.
Judge Boasberg is also no stranger to handling politically charged matters related to the chaotic Trump presidency. He was the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the Justice Department’s inspector general had uncovered myriad errors and omissions in F.B.I. applications for warrants to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, as part of the Russia investigation.
As part of managing the fallout from that discovery, the judge banned officials who had worked on the Page matter from further involvement in national-security wiretap applications and oversaw internal changes at the F.B.I., ratifying some changes it made on its own and imposing another himself.
Judge Boasberg also ordered a review of all actions by an F.B.I. lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, whom the inspector general had discovered doctored an email in a way that kept one of the problems from coming to internal light. But when Mr. Clinesmith pleaded guilty, the judge rejected prosecutors’ request for prison time and sentenced him to probation, citing the destruction of his F.B.I. career and how he had been vilified in a “media hurricane” as sufficiently punitive and a deterrent.
Ronald C. Machen, a former U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia who had worked alongside Judge Boasberg when they were young federal prosecutors, said both as a prosecutor and a judge “he knew when you needed a heavy hand to hold someone accountable for a violent crime as opposed to when someone deserved a break — he had that balance.”
In a sentencing hearing in October 2021, as Judge Boasberg imposed three months of home confinement on a rioter in line with the request of prosecutors, he told the defendant that the events of Jan. 6 were an attack on American democracy.
“I can’t emphasize enough, as I’ve said before, that the cornerstone of our democratic republic is the peaceful transfer of power after an election,” the judge told the defendant. “And what you and others did on Jan. 6 was nothing less than an attempt to undermine that system of government.”
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