On Friday, a new judge took charge of the federal court in Washington, DC, where secret proceedings involving criminal investigations into former president Donald Trump’s retention of classified documents and efforts by him and his allies to undo his 2020 election loss are being heard.
When Judge Beryl Howell’s seven-year term ended, she was succeeded as chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia by James “Jeb” Boasberg.
All decisions regarding the confidentiality of federal grand jury proceedings are made by the chief judge. Since Trump announced his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination in November, Boasberg now has immediate responsibility for handling any issues that may arise in the special counsel investigations.
If a grand jury is convened as part of a separate special counsel investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents, Boasberg would be responsible for overseeing that as well. It is widely anticipated that Biden, a Democrat, will run for reelection in 2024.
Boasberg, as chief judge, is in a position to rule on various legal arguments brought up during the grand jury investigations, such as efforts to limit witness testimony. Proceedings before a grand jury are secret.
Boasberg, when asked about his future role overseeing a grand jury, evaded answering any questions. He said that the court was lucky to have Howell as its leader “in this very fraught period,” praising his predecessor.
She has “led the court in a terrific way” through COVID and “dislocations,” and “she has maintained a very cohesive court not driven by partisan divides,” Justice Boasberg has said.
Boasberg has been a Supreme Court justice since 2011. He was appointed there by Obama, a Democrat. Back in 2002, then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, appointed him to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Each time, the Senate in the United States unanimously voted to confirm him.
The two investigations into Trump are proceeding, with Special Counsel Jack Smith presenting evidence to multiple grand juries. Smith was appointed in November by Attorney General Merrick Garland. The retention of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida after he leaves office in January 2021 and attempts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power after Trump’s loss to Biden are at issue.
In January, Garland appointed Robert Hur as another special counsel to investigate classified documents discovered at Biden’s Delaware home and former office in Washington.
No president, either current or former, has ever been charged with a crime.
According to his fellow judges and former law clerks, Boasberg, a tall and deep-voiced former member of Yale’s basketball team, is well-prepared to handle the cases and lead the court through the intense scrutiny any indictment would bring.
US District Judge Casey Cooper in Washington, who has known Boasberg since their days at Yale, praised him as “incredibly balanced, thoughtful, and fair,” saying that Boasberg is “exactly the sort of independent thinker you would want in that position.”
As Howell put it, “whether arising out of the grand jury or not, that draw the spotlight of national attention,” Boasberg is not afraid to tackle high-profile and novel issues.
For the duration of her time as chief judge, Howell regularly presided over the legal proceedings surrounding special counsel investigations.
Examples include Republican congressman Scott Perry’s attempt to prevent investigators from accessing his cellphone and messages related to actions concerning the 2020 election results, and a challenge by an unnamed, foreign-owned company to a grand jury subpoena issued by then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he examined the contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Former D.C. trial court judge and current US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke at Friday’s ceremony honoring the transition of power from Howell to Boasberg.
As Justice Jackson put it, “there was no better leadership of a court in crisis anywhere in this country” under Howell’s watch.
Boasberg is no stranger to challenging tasks. He presided over the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2020 and 2021, the body that reviews requests for covert surveillance warrants from the US government. During his time in office, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog had already found flaws in the agency’s approach to obtaining the covert warrants.
Boasberg oversaw the criminal case brought by Special Counsel John Durham against former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith in 2020; Clinesmith had pleaded guilty to altering an email used to justify a government wiretap of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Boasberg gave Clinesmith a year of probation and 400 hours of community service for his offense.
After the 2020 election, Republican state lawmakers and others who contested Trump’s loss asked Boasberg to prevent congressional certification of Biden’s election win. Boasberg rejected their challenge.
Boasberg wrote that he had referred the case and the attorney behind it, Erick Kaardal, to the court’s grievance committee for acting in “potential bad faith,” saying that “courts are not instruments through which parties engage in such gamesmanship or symbolic political gestures.”