With special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation underway in Washington, D.C., local court rules mean it’s likely U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl Howell who’s tasked with overseeing it.
Mueller’s grand jury investigation into Russian interference in last year’s elections has already been in place for several weeks, according to recent reports. The rules for the local court make clear it’s the chief judge who decides any disputes that arise in the secret grand jury proceedings, such as a subpoena fight. Howell can reassign the case in certain circumstances.
Should Howell oversee skirmishes on subpoenas and witness testimony, she’ll bring deep knowledge of national security, transparency and criminal justice issues. She also brings straightforward courtroom management.
“You just have to be on your game with her,” said Jeffrey Louis Light, a D.C. attorney who’s had multiple cases before Howell. “She does not tolerate people coming in and not knowing what they’re doing.”
Howell, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, has been the chief judge for more than a year. Howell served as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 2004 to 2012, a position she was appointed to by President George W. Bush.
Despite the bipartisan appointments, Howell could have trouble escaping the criticism judges and lawyers have encountered from President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a partisan “witch hunt” and lashed out at federal judges who’ve ruled against his policies.
Matthew Huppert, an associate at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd Figel & Frederick, clerked for Howell from 2012-2013. He said his former boss is not beholden to the president that nominated her.
“I think judges often get shoehorned into, ‘Oh they’re a Democratic or Republican judge,’” Huppert said. “That’s not usually a totally fair characterization, and I think that’s especially not the case for Judge Howell.”
Howell spent several years in private practice and clerked for U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise of the District of New Jersey after graduating from Columbia Law School. She became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York in 1987, where she worked alongside future government servants, including former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former DOJ criminal chief Leslie Caldwell.
Howell became deputy chief of the narcotics section for that district in 1990 and was the lead prosecutor on more than 100 criminal cases, according to her 2010 Senate questionnaire.
Howell also conducted several drug trafficking and money laundering grand jury investigations in New York. One case, which Howell listed as one of the most significant she handled in her 2010 questionnaire, involved a three-year investigation into public corruption by building inspectors within the New York City Department of Buildings. The case resulted in the convictions of more than 25 inspectors for extortion.
Howell left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1993 and became the general counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Following public service, she joined the cybersecurity firm Stroz Friedberg, where she became executive managing partner and general counsel until she joined the court.
Howell has issued several key rulings during the past few years on the bench. Earlier this year, she ordered the release of a list of more than 200 cases in which federal prosecutors sought surveillance requests, the first ever such release by a federal court. Howell also struck down a ban on protesting at the Supreme Court plaza in 2013, a decision later overturned, and ruled for a Sikh soldier to block the Army from requiring him to undergo additional testing in order to serve with a beard and turban. In 2015, an Above the Law analysis of Ravel data showed Howell was the second-most cited judge of those appointed since 2010.
Howell’s decision-making in overseeing the grand jury investigation would be limited to issues arising from the investigation. Decisions would be filed under seal, according to secrecy rules.
Huppert, the former clerk, said that when it comes to decisions, Howell is “very fair-minded” and “intellectually rigorous.”
“What she always tried to emphasize to us … is there is no preconceived notion of what the right answer is or what the right result is,” Huppert said. “She very strongly believes in following the law where it leads her, and not carving out what she thinks the law should be.”
Light echoed the sentiment, noting Howell’s opinions can be lengthy, but her thoroughness always makes it “abundantly clear how she thought through the decision.” He added that when it comes to the courtroom, Howell “gets things done” and “when she wants a case to move along, it moves along.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said Howell previously worked for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.