A new chief judge in the federal courthouse in Washington, DC, is poised to take over as that position has become one of the most influential in the nation’s capital, playing a key role in deciding issues that could factor into whether former President Donald Trump is indicted.
Chief Judge Beryl Howell, who has served in that role since 2016, has repeatedly green-lit Justice Department requests to pursue information about Trump’s actions, from his top advisers and lawyers and even inside the White House. She’ll be succeeded by James “Jeb” Boasberg, a fellow Barack Obama appointee and one-time Brett Kavanaugh law school roommate who’s well-known in Washington.
While presiding over the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2020 and 2021, Boasberg encouraged the declassification of information so that the public could read proceedings related to the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between Trump and Russia.
If the Justice Department were to indict Trump, the case would be randomly assigned to one of the district court’s judges, meaning the chief could handle the case but may not. Still, the chief judge has unusual sway over the pace and scope of investigations as the Justice Department attempts to enforce its grand jury subpoenas, obtain warrants and access evidence it has collected by arguing to the chief judge in sealed proceedings.
“This court would be ready,” Howell said in a recent interview with CNN, when asked about the historic possibility of a Trump indictment. She added any judge on that court “would do it justice.”
Howell, who steps down from the position on Friday, may conclude her tenure by issuing decisions in sealed cases related to special counsel Jack Smith’s investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified material at Mar-a-Lago. Already, she granted Kash Patel – a former administration official – immunity for testimony he provided the grand jury investigation. She also held off a Justice Department request to place Trump in contempt for his alleged failure to turn over subpoenaed classified documents.
The DC federal courthouse has embraced its role in major criminal investigations of politicians in the past. A framed Time Magazine is displayed outside the courthouse with the District Court’s Watergate-era Chief Judge John Sirica on the cover. Howell, in recent years, has nodded to Sirica, who allowed federal investigators access to records related to then-President Richard Nixon that hastened his resignation.
Sirica embraced an unusually public role in one of the most fraught criminal investigations ever in Washington. Howell and Boasberg prefer working behind the scenes.
“Neither of us will be Time’s person of the year,” Boasberg told CNN.
Much of Howell’s work on those cases remains under seal, but details have trickled out on approximately 10 cases related to Smith’s investigation. Those include ongoing challenges around a grand jury subpoena of former Vice President Mike Pence and the Justice Department’s attempt to force Trump defense attorney Evan Corcoran to answer potentially incriminating questions about his interactions with Trump on classified records at Mar-a-Lago.
Still, the chief judge’s role generates attention because the cases before the court in recent years have been so politically charged – and sometimes criticized publicly by Trump himself.
Fan social media accounts sprung up about Howell, with one TikTok user getting tens of thousands of views. The posts generally highlight Howell’s no-nonsense quips and vivid facial expressions in public speeches.
Howell said she and other judges were shocked to discover the clips of her on TikTok.
“I just do my job. We’re all pretty much a bunch of nerds,” she said. “For a nerdy lawyer, getting novel, important cases is a dream.”
Howell said she’s been surprised and at times uncomfortable with being the focus of attention in the investigations around Trump. Still, she regularly pens searing opinions allowing for public and congressional access to grand jury-related matters.
Following the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, Howell became one of the most cutting voices in the federal government’s response, handling several proceedings of rioter defendants early on. She also had to manage a courthouse in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it faced an influx of new criminal cases like it never had before.
The courthouse was closed on January 6, but Howell recognized as she watched the rioters overwhelm the Capitol building that the DC District Court would handle the brunt of cases. She called the senior judges who had largely reduced their case loads and asked them if they would take on more criminal rioter cases.
“We’re going to be very busy,” Howell remembers telling them. Nearly all agreed to take on full criminal dockets – a testament to the DC bench’s camaraderie.
Later, in a riot defendant’s proceeding that the public was able to listen to by calling in on a phone line, Howell spoke furiously about how she could see armed guards from her chambers’ window overlooking the National Mall.
“We’re still living here in Washington, DC, with the consequences of the violence that this defendant is alleged to have participated in,” she said at the hearing in 2021.
In the known cases during the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation and the current Smith probe, Howell has repeatedly sided with investigators seeking confidential information in their probes.
In her last weeks as chief, Howell has made clear in her orders that she is trying to make public as much as she can – though there are severe limitations from higher courts that protect the secrecy of the grand jury in ongoing investigations.
She allowed the Justice Department access to GOP Rep. Scott Perry’s phone contents in the election interference investigation, a ruling now under appeal at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Howell also ruled against Trump in attempts he made to protect presidential communications with former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Deputy Patrick Philbin and vice presidential advisers Greg Jacob and Marc Short, eliciting their testimony.
Yet she is denying requests from journalists for access to grand jury records from the ongoing Trump January 6 investigation.
One of those opinions railed against the DC Circuit precedent that severely limits when judges, including her, can allow grand jury materials to be released.
“If public interest in a significant and historical event or high-level government officials could serve as the sole ground to justify the disclosure of grand jury matters in exceptional circumstances, the petitioners’ case here would be incredibly strong,” Howell wrote. “Unfortunately for petitioners, that is not the standard for disclosure of grand jury material.”
Boasberg recently told CNN that he hopes to keep a similar approach to Howell on transparency around sealed proceedings – doing what he can to make public information under the law, when it’s possible.
At the FISA court, Boasberg released redacted orders he wrote, chastising the FBI for relying on applications to the court that contained misleading information, including when the investigators sought to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump adviser who was criminally investigated after the 2016 campaign but never charged.
In one partially redacted opinion, Boasberg wrote that the “frequency and seriousness of these errors in a case that, given its sensitive nature, had an unusually high level of review at both DOJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have called into question the reliability of the information proffered in other FBI applications.”
More recently, Boasberg had before him the Justice Department’s lawsuit seeking to compel GOP megadonor Steve Wynn to register as a foreign agent for his alleged efforts to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of the Chinese. Boasberg agreed with Wynn to dismiss the case, and it is now on appeal before the DC US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Like Howell, Boasberg did not hide his concerns about appeals court precedent that he said constrained his approach. He also showed his sense of humor. The Wynn opinion included multiple references to lyrics by the 1990s hip hop band the Fugees, as a member of the band was accused of having connections to the alleged influence scheme.
Boasberg was confirmed to the federal bench in 2011, after receiving a nod from President George W. Bush for a position on the DC Superior Court eight years prior. The local DC Court is where the former college basketball player cut his chops as assistant US attorney, specializing in homicide prosecutions.
In DC legal circles, he’s earned a reputation for being friendly with a wide social circle and grew up with several prominent Washingtonians.
“Jeb is so social and Beryl is very reserved,” said Amy Jeffress, a prominent Washington defense lawyer whose spouse, Christopher “Casey” Cooper, is also a judge in the DC District Court.
Boasberg is currently the president of the Edward Bennett Williams Inn of Court, a professional advancement organization for DC attorneys that regularly brings together top prosecutors and defense lawyers.
As a student at Yale Law School, Boasberg lived in a house with now-Justice Kavanaugh and six other law students. The group of former roommates still remain close and organize annual trips together.
“Fairness is very important to him,” said Jim Brochin, an attorney who lived with Boasberg in the eight-person Yale Law house.
Brochin pointed to Boasberg’s experience as a prosecutor trying murder cases, including some of the “hardest” cases his office had at the time, as well as his time as a judge leading the FISA court.
“He is not afraid of tackling hard subjects,” Brochin said. “Nothing fazes him.”