Bloomberg Law
March 14, 2023, 9:00 AM

New Court Ringmaster to Oversee Trump Grand Juries in Washington

Zoe Tillman
Zoe Tillman
Bloomberg News

When Judge James Boasberg is sworn in Friday as the new chief judge of the US District Court in Washington, he’ll suddenly be at the epicenter of federal investigations circling former President Donald Trump.

Boasberg, who starts a seven-year term as chief judge, will oversee the court’s secret grand jury proceedings, including pending and future legal fights related to Special Counsel Jack Smith’s probes of Trump, among other duties.

Key potential decisions ahead could involve former Vice President Mike Pence’s vow to invoke legislative privilege to fight a subpoena and reported fights over Trump’s claims of attorney-client privilege and executive privilege.

Boasberg declined to talk about the scope of the grand jury work to come.

“I am proud of how cohesive our court has been, we are not at all riven by partisan issues,” Boasberg said. “We all get along very well and I certainly hope that continues in my tenure.”

Judge James Boasberg in Washington, on March 13.
Photographer: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg

Boasberg and current Chief Judge Beryl Howell were both confirmed to the US District Court under former President Barack Obama and handed down significant rulings against the Trump administration, but neither has a reputation as a liberal firebrand. At a minimum, Boasberg represents something of a fresh slate for all parties involved in the Trump-focused investigations.

Howell said she was still processing the past seven years.

“A lot of my work in the grand jury arena remains under seal, so it is going to be very hard to say what my legacy will be until after some of that work gets unsealed and people are able to evaluate it,” she said.

Last fall Smith took over federal probes into whether classified information was mishandled at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and whether the former president and his allies interfered in the 2020 presidential election. If prosecutors bring charges in Washington, those cases would be randomly assigned to a judge, per court rules.

Even if Smith’s potential cases don’t land on Boasberg’s docket, they’ll present other challenges. He’ll work with the US Marshals Service, judges, and court administrators on security and logistics if the court ends up hosting high-profile, politically divisive prosecutions. Securing the courthouse and keeping judges and employees safe has been an especially sensitive issue since the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol across the street.

Boasberg, known to friends and colleagues as “Jeb,” has been a judge for more than two decades. A former federal prosecutor, he spent nine years on the District of Columbia Superior Court handling everything from murder trials to civil property disputes. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 96-0 to confirm him in 2011 as a federal court judge.

His recent cases have included the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust case against Meta Platforms Inc. and the Justice Department’s foreign lobbying suit against casino magnate Steve Wynn. He previously ordered the draining of the Dakota Access Pipeline (later reversed), rebuffed Trump-backed state Medicaid work requirements and rejected an effort to force the government to release death photos of Osama bin Laden.

Boasberg brings experience handling secret court proceedings, having served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including as presiding judge.

Howell’s tenure as chief began with former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s look at Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump engaged in obstruction. She shepherded the court through the pandemic and then the crush of hundreds of prosecutions following the Jan. 6 attack.

Howell said she would miss “some of the daily excitement of not knowing what’s walking in the door,” but is also looking forward to returning to the “much more regular existence” of a district judge.

Boasberg credited Howell for having “worked extremely hard in very trying times with the pandemic and complicated special counsel investigations,” adding that she “always put the court first, which we judges have really appreciated.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Zoe Tillman in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Angela Moon at

Elizabeth Wasserman

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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