Ex-Leahy staffer provides judicial oversight for Russia investigation

The Daily Beast reports that Judge Beryl Howell is the jurist who signed off on Robert Mueller’s request to convene a Washington, D.C. grand jury for the Russia investigation. It also says that, going forward, Howell “will be the umpire-in-chief: deciding whether or not Trump allies’ lawyers can quash subpoenas, and whether or not people like Jared Kushner can invoke what’s known as executive privilege to get out of testifying under oath before Mueller’s grand jury.”

Howell won’t have the final say. Her rulings will be subject to appeal and, to the extent they deal with matters like executive privilege, as opposed to quashing a particular subpoeana, the appeals court review will likely be searching. Nonetheless, Judge Howell is well-positioned to play a big role in deciding the fate of Mueller’s investigation, and thus the Trump presidency.

Who is Beryl Howell? The Daily Beast informs us that she’s a former Patrick Leahy staffer, having spent ten years working for the hyper-partisan Vermont leftist on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

When President Obama nominated Howell in 2010, Leahy said: “We rarely have before us nominees to the bench with the breadth of experience that she brings.” With praise like this from Leahy, it’s very likely that Howell is a hyper-partisan leftist too.

The Daily Beast quotes an unnamed Washington lobbyist who says: “Even though she worked for Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she’s been very straight-arrow as a judge and she wouldn’t be impaneling a jury for the heck of it, or anything less than there being ample justification for it.” Since the lobbyist is unnamed, we have no way of evaluating his credibility.

It may well be that Howell has been a “straight-arrow” as a judge in the garden variety cases she hears. A chance to stick it to a president who, trust me, even less partisan Washingtonians than ex-Leahy staffers can’t stand is another matter.

Moreover, convening the grand jury isn’t the problem. That decision might well have been justified. It’s what will come later that may well be abusive.

The unnamed lobbyist goes on to say that Howell is “like Mueller.” That begs the question, doesn’t it? Moreover, she’s not really like Mueller. He didn’t spend ten years working for Pat Leahy.

The other potential problem with Howell is her close association with a member of Mueller’s team — Andrew Weissmann. The two worked together as assistant U.S. attorneys in the Eastern District of New York. That by itself wouldn’t be problematic. However, according to the Daily Beast, the two co-authored an article in 2006 about (of all things) obstruction of justice.

The next year, Weissman thanked Howell, then a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for her help with another article she wrote. Clearly, the two have a relationship that continued well beyond their days as young prosecutors.

Given Howell’s work for the hyper-partisan Leahy and her relationship with Weissman, there are substantial reasons to doubt her impartiality in the Russia investigation matter. She should recuse herself. If she doesn’t, and objectionable rulings begin to flow, President Trump will have another good reason to shut down Mueller’s show.

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