D.C. chief judge post turns over with Trump probes in balance

Last updated on March 18, 2023

To hear Beryl Howell’s colleagues tell it, the tenure of the federal district court’s outgoing chief judge has been defined by work of monumental importance that the public — and even most of them — will never see.

Howell formally handed off that post to a colleague Friday, but not before she was toasted, and occasionally roasted, by fellow judges who made clear they were as tantalized as the rest of the the political world by Howell’s secret work presiding over grand juries that could lead to charges against former President Donald Trump — particularly for his bid to subvert the 2020 election.

Howell seemed to freeze in her seat as the most senior jurist on the court, Judge Paul Friedman, publicly described her still-secret rulings in grand jury-related matters, pointing to press accounts of Howell ruling in favor of Trump in a contempt dispute over his office’s response to a grand jury subpoena for classified records and against Trump on an effort to assert attorney-client privilege in the same probe.

“What fascinating issues!” Friedman declared wryly as Howell remained stone-faced on the dais. “We’d all love to read her opinions, but we can’t,” he said to laughter.

Friedman did note, however, that Howell had issued 100 secret grand jury opinions during her seven-year term.

Another colleague, Judge Tanya Chutkan, also alluded to Howell’s work resolving disputes related to the court’s grand juries over the past seven years.

“There’s so much work Chief Judge Howell has done that we may never know about,” Chutkan said.

Another tribute to Howell came from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who served on the district court in D.C. before being elevated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court. Jackson said Howell has been vital to keeping the critical district court in the Capital operating through a series of major challenges.

“She’s like that steel beam in a construction project that holds everything else up,” Jackson said.

Howell was replaced as chief Friday by Judge James Boasberg. Both are appointees of President Barack Obama.

Boasberg also referenced Howell’s handling of secret grand jury proceedings.

“Most of the work she has done has been secret so she doesn’t even get credit for that,” he said.

By law, the chief judge position on federal courts is filled chiefly by seniority, with a maximum term of seven years. Howell, a former prosecutor and Senate aide who has served on the U.S. District Court since 2010, will continue to hear cases in the normal rotation.

No major shift in the direction of the court or those probes is expected as a result of the change, but Boasberg will now have to resolve privilege fights and other disputes at the grand jury and could receive remands from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is now considering several appeals related to Howell’s decisions.

Howell’s work overseeing the high-profile grand jury matters involving former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the ongoing Trump probes and the criminal cases stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol have brought her a cult following on social media.

Chutkan alluded to that fame in her remarks Friday, pointing to memes about Howell on TikTok and to “stans” who applauded her rulings.