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Meet the chief federal judge overseeing several high-profile Trump grand jury probes

James Boasberg is chief judge of the U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C.
Valerie Plesch
Bloomberg via Getty Images
James Boasberg is chief judge of the U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C.

Almost from the start of his tenure this year as chief judge of the federal district court in Washington, D.C., weighty legal issues arrived on the desk of James "Jeb" Boasberg.

Boasberg, 60, presides over a building where trials of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are underway, as are grand jury investigations of former President Donald Trump.

In one of his first official acts, Chief Judge Boasberg issued what could become a landmark ruling that directs former Vice President Mike Pence to testify about his contacts with Trump in the days before the insurrection.

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The decision, which is still sealed, turned away an executive privilege challenge from Trump, but honored some boundaries Pence tried to erect in terms of his role presiding over the Senate on that chaotic day. Pence recently announced he would not appeal, setting up the prospect he could within weeks tell a grand jury about the pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 election.

Former prosecutor Glenn Kirschner said based on what he's read, Boasberg's decision is both proper and savvy, because it deftly recognizes complex legal issues and shortcuts Trump's efforts at delay.

"You know it kind of gives everybody what they're entitled to under the law but it keeps matters moving forward," said Kirschner, who supervised Boasberg decades ago when they were homicide prosecutors in the District.

Kirschner said Boasberg, who boasts degrees from Yale and Oxford University, made a good trial lawyer because he can connect with people from all walks of life. Indeed, the new chief judge often walks down the courthouse corridors, greeting prosecutors, defense lawyers and courthouse staffers by name.

Boasberg also 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.

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"And he was good," Machen said. "I mean he's a tall guy and played at Yale and was very successful. ... I couldn't believe it, he was actually pretty good."

Those basketball-playing days are over after the judge's athletic pursuits helped contribute to a knee replacement several years ago, another friend said.

Boasberg started his judicial career in the D.C. Superior Court, where he was appointed by then-President George W. Bush. Years later, President Barack Obama elevated him to a seat on the federal court, where he won unanimous confirmation by the Senate in 2011. He also served on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during a period where the FBI faced harsh criticismfor submitting inaccurate applications to the court.

Boasberg has since become one of the top feeder judges in the U.S., sending many of his young clerks onto clerkships at the Supreme Court.

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

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Boasberg's friend and former colleague Amy Jeffress said the judge is known for following the law, even when it produces unexpected results. She cited his decision last year throwing out the Justice Department's civil lawsuit against casino mogul Steve Wynn for his failure to register as an agent of China, a move that has the potential to defang DOJ's enforcement efforts.

"While the goals of FARA are laudable, this Court is bound to apply the statute as interpreted by the D.C. Circuit and that requires dismissal," Boasberg wrote.

The judge cited a decades-old court precedent and quoted former appeals court Judge Robert Bork, a pillar of the conservative legal community.

Collegiality is a priority for Boasberg and for his tenure on the court, said fellow U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich. Last month, they traveled together to Yale for a conversation with other judges about "crossing divides."

An online notice about the program said the focus would be "their approach to judging in partisan times, their experiences on the federal bench, and their shared commitment to the rule of law."

"We socialize with each other and we genuinely respect each other," Friedrich said in an interview this week. "You can become better lawyers and better people by listening to the other side."

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