The coronavirus pandemic’s disruption of the federal courts will delay a judge’s review of a full, unredacted copy of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton of the District of Columbia had ordered the Justice Department to turn over the report, in a ruling that sharply criticized U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the more than 400-page document. Walton said Barr displayed a “lack of candor” in his public rollout of the Mueller report, and the judge assailed the Justice Department leader for appearing to spin the Russia investigation’s findings “in favor of President Trump.”
“The court has grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report and its impacts on the department’s subsequent justifications that its redactions of the Mueller Report are authorized by the [Freedom of Information Act],” Walton said in his 23-page ruling March 5.
Justice Department lawyers submitted the report Monday, only to have Walton note that he will not be able to review the unredacted version until at least April 20, in light of an order issued by Chief Judge Beryl Howell that drastically limited the court’s operations amid the coronavirus crisis.
BuzzFeed News and the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuits at the center of the case. “The judge’s review of the Mueller report marks one of the most significant ‘in camera’ reviews in the history of the Freedom of Information Act,” the advocacy group said Monday in a statement.
Civil and criminal trials in Washington’s federal district court are on hold until mid-May, and other proceedings are delayed until April, in accordance with Howell’s order earlier this month.
The restrictions in the Washington court mirror many of those around the country, as trial and appellate courts embraced measures limiting public access to court buildings to minimize the spread of the virus.
Barr was set to appear Tuesday at the House Judiciary Committee, for a scheduled hearing addressing what Democratic leaders said were “numerous concerns regarding his leadership of the Department of Justice and the president’s improper influence over the department and our criminal justice system.”
That hearing has been delayed amid the restrictions in place on Capitol Hill.
A Justice Department spokesperson earlier this month pushed back against Walton’s criticism of Barr. “The court’s assertions were contrary to the facts. The original redactions in the public report were made by department attorneys, in consultation with senior members of Special Counsel Mueller’s team, prosecutors in U.S. attorney offices and members of the intelligence community.”