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What to expect from the new chief judge at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C.


The federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., is a hub of activity, from the trials of January 6 rioters to grand jury investigations of former President Donald Trump. A new chief judge recently took control of that court and quickly issued a ruling that paved the way for testimony by former Vice President Mike Pence. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has this profile.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's hard not to notice when Chief Judge Jeb Boasberg walks down the corridors of the federal courthouse. For one thing, he's about 6 feet, 6 inches tall. For another, he's the kind of guy who stops to chat with all the prosecutors and defense lawyers and court staffers he sees.

GLENN KIRSCHNER: What made him such an effective trial court prosecutor is he had this way of connecting with people from all walks of life, and it was genuine.

JOHNSON: That's Glenn Kirschner, who supervised Judge Boasberg in the U.S. attorney's office decades ago, after Boasberg graduated from Yale and Oxford University. They were part of a small unit of prosecutors who handled the toughest homicide cases in the city.

KIRSCHNER: One, he never lost a homicide case, and, two, he took the difficult cases to trial. And I know because I assigned him some of those difficult cases.

JOHNSON: Boasberg remains close to the lawyers he met in that homicide section in the 1990s. One of them is Ronald Machen. They shared an office and played basketball every Wednesday back in those days.

RONALD MACHEN: And he was good. I mean, he's a tall guy and played at Yale and was very successful and has more athleticism than - you know, I couldn't believe it. He's actually pretty good (laughter).

JOHNSON: Boasberg went on to become a judge in the D.C. Superior Court, appointed by then-President George W. Bush. Years later, President Obama elevated him to a seat on the federal court. He won unanimous confirmation by the Senate in 2011. Boasberg has since become one of the top feeder judges in the U.S., sending many of his young clerks on to clerkships at the Supreme Court. Again, Ron Machen.

MACHEN: You know, this is a guy that's devoted his life to public service, that could be the managing partner of probably any firm in the city, making millions of dollars. But he has devoted his life to serving people.

JOHNSON: In his new job as chief judge, Boasberg handles complicated issues that arise in the grand juries. Almost from the start, weighty legal questions came his way.


DON LEMON: Looks like Mike Pence might finally testify in the special counsel's investigation of the former president, Donald Trump.

JOHNSON: In a ruling that's still sealed, Boasberg rejected Trump's claims of executive privilege but found the special counsel could not ask Pence certain questions about his role presiding over the Senate on January 6. Pence said this week he won't appeal, which means he could testify in the coming weeks about Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 election. Former prosecutor Glenn Kirschner says, based on what he's read, Boasberg's decision is both proper and savvy.

KIRSCHNER: You know, it kind of gives everybody what they're entitled to under the law, but it keeps matters moving forward.

JOHNSON: Boasberg's friend and former colleague Amy Jeffress says the judge will try to be transparent in his new role.

AMY JEFFRESS: I think that he will take steps to make sure that the public has access to all of the information that he can possibly release. And the grand jury proceedings that he will be handling will, by rule, be secret. But he will try to promote transparency where possible.

JOHNSON: A media coalition, including NPR, is working to make that Pence ruling public.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CACTUS CHANNEL'S "STAY A WHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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