Time to End the Veil of Secrecy Inside D.C. Kangaroo Court

Judge Beryl Howell did not get the gushing send off from her colleagues she undoubtedly expected.

Howell, appointed to the D.C. District Court by Barack Obama in 2010 and elevated to the court’s highest post in 2016—just in time to oversee numerous criminal investigations into Donald Trump—finished up her seven-year stint as chief judge earlier this month. Colleagues and staff assembled in her courtroom as the proverbial torch was passed to Judge James Boasberg, another Obama appointee.

But according to Politico, the retirement celebration turned into a “roast” of sorts as one judge after another chided Howell for her closed-doors dealings. 

“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,” reporters Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney wrote on March 17. “[Her] fellow judges made clear they were as tantalized as the rest of the political world by Howell’s secret work presiding over grand juries that could lead to charges against former President Donald Trump.”

Howell sat “stone-faced” when Friedman teased how, “we’d all love to read her opinions, but we can’t.” Friedman also noted that Howell issued “100 secret grand jury opinions” as chief judge.

Tanya Chutkan, another Obama appointee, also chimed in. “There’s so much work Chief Judge Howell has done that we may never know about,” she joked.

Although she will remain on the bench as an associate judge, her farewell as chief ended on a sour note. Nevertheless, Howell got the last laugh, once again, at Trump’s expense.

In yet another sealed ruling, Howell rejected claims of privilege and ordered Evan Corcoran, one of Trump’s attorneys, to testify before a grand jury in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Team Trump’s handling of alleged classified documents. 

Howell’s penchant for secrecy, of course, doesn’t extend to the news media; details related to the sealed order were leaked a few days later. 

“Sources added that Howell also ordered Corcoran to hand over a number of records tied to what Howell described as Trump’s alleged ‘criminal scheme,’ echoing prosecutors,” ABC News reported on March 21. “Those records include handwritten notes, invoices, and transcriptions of personal audio recordings.” (Corcoran testified on Friday.)

In a matter of months, Howell has authored a flurry of secret decrees, including authorization to retain the contents of Representative Scott Perry’s (R-Va.) cell phone—seized by FBI agents last August, the day after the Mar-a-Lago FBI raid—and compelling the testimony of key Trump aides including former chief of staff Mark Meadows, former national security advisor Robert O’Brien, and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a ruling also leaked to ABC News last week.

In fact, much of the work conducted in Washington, D.C.’s E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse is far out of the public eye. In the ongoing prosecution of at least 1,000 people (and counting) in what the Biden regime considers an act of domestic terror comparable to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, it is nearly impossible for Americans to watch what’s happening on a daily basis. When initial court proceedings began in the January 6 investigation—arraignments, pretrial detention requests, plea agreements—Howell made those individual hearings available on a public access line.

But shortly before the first jury trial in March 2022, most of the public access lines were disabled. Reporters or members of the public who want to view any part of the Justice Department’s largest criminal investigation in American history must travel to the nation’s capital, go through an intense security screening, and sit in a small courtroom without access to electronic devices. (For example, I sat in an empty courtroom in February and watched Chutkan sentence a J6 defendant to 12 months in prison on misdemeanor convictions while mocking him for using a public defender.)

This is in stark contrast to the D.C. appellate court, which livestreams hearings on YouTube and posts recordings on its website.

So, why would a lower court not follow suit?

The reason is obvious. If citizens and independent journalists not based in Washington, D.C. had access to these courtrooms, the public would be outraged at the conduct of prosecutors and judges overseeing January 6 cases. They would hear federal judges routinely berate January 6 defendants, even those accused of low-level petty offenses, for their minor involvement in the Capitol protest. The public would learn how lengthy prison sentences are often handed down for crimes no different in nature (though, in most J6 cases, much less serious) from those committed in 2020 by left-wing rioters who largely remain unpunished to this day.

They would hear the weak evidence presented by prosecutors—usually nothing more than a collection of social media posts, chat messages, and cherry-picked video clips rather than hard proof of plans to “overthrow democracy” that day—and how often D.C. judges act as a rubber stamp for the government.

For example, in the past few weeks alone, the public would have learned about the presence of numerous FBI informants embedded in the Proud Boys; five members of the group are now on trial for seditious conspiracy and other charges. In fact, the steady drumbeat of revelations about the amount of FBI informants prompted one defense attorney to joke last week in court that “I am not and have never been a CHS”—the acronym for confidential human source or informant.

In the latest scandal for the Justice Department at trial—the defense team recently uncovered multiple messages exchanged between FBI agents that discussed doctored and destroyed evidence as well as the jailhouse surveillance of attorney-client communications—prosecutors waited months before notifying the defense team that one of their witnesses had been an FBI informant for nearly two years. Not only was this particular witness accused of cozying up to a few Proud Boy defendants and their loved ones, she also repeatedly contacted at least one defense attorney and met in person with others.

Did any of this alarm Judge Timothy Kelly, the Trump-appointed judge overseeing the trial? Nope.

Kelly, working without any meaningful public scrutiny, did not admonish prosecutors for waiting until the day before the witness was scheduled to testify to let defense counsel know she was an informant. And when the government came up with excuses about why her role as an FBI informant was not relevant and the jury should not know about it, Kelly agreed. 

“Everyone involved has, sort of, sworn that [targeting of defense team] didn’t happen and I think her contacts with the defense camp have, are easily explained, by her sympathy for the defendants,” Kelly told attorneys. “So all that stuff will be out of bounds when she comes up.”

Now, no one knows if Kelly’s conclusions are accurate because most of the official records related to this informant’s work remain under seal, even hidden from the defense team. One defense lawyer complained that the documents they did receive were heavily redacted.

But the government got its way; the defense dropped the FBI informant from its witness list. And that move came just a few days after Kelly quashed a defense subpoena to compel the testimony of a key FBI informant who drove the then-leader of the Proud Boys to a meeting with the member of the Oath Keepers on January 5, 2021 among other activities.

Kelly’s heavy-handedness against transparency earned a rare rebuke from a coalition of major news organizations, which noted in a new motion that Kelly has held “previously sealed hearings and excluded the press and public from attending proceedings in this high-profile case”

It is time for the new chief judge to shine a much-needed light inside the Prettyman courthouse. Open the records, remove the protective order on thousands of hours of surveillance video, and, most importantly, give the American people access to trials and hearings.

The January 6 prosecution is dominating our political discourse, irrevocably altering the way the government handles political dissent, destroying lives, and closing in on Donald Trump. None of the goings-on should take place before an exclusive audience composed of only those who live and work in the nation’s capital. Judge Boasberg should stop allowing judges and prosecutors to hide from Americans. The moment of truth is long gone, but he can, and should, remedy it without delay.

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