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The news that the United States Department of Justice intended to drop charges against retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was met with an immediate outcry when it was announced on May 7. Many believe that the DOJ was unlawfully protecting a former member of President Donald Trump’s administration.
US District Judge Emmet Sullivan appears to share those concerns, appointing former District Judge John Gleeson to challenge the DOJ’s decision. Sullivan’s request will put both judges in the political limelight to a degree that district judges generally avoid.
With Flynn’s case acting as a linchpin in the Obamagate conspiracy theory, both judges could face the wrath of the president and his army of supporters depending on their decisions.
Who is Judge Emmet Sullivan?
A native of Washington, DC, Judge Sullivan has had a long and distinguished career in law. He completed a political science degree at Howard University in 1968 and received a Juris Doctor Degree at the Howard University School of Law in 1971.
Sullivan spent time as a law clerk before joining the law firm Houston & Gardner in 1973. Seven years later, he was made a partner and the firm became Houston, Sullivan & Gardner. In private practice, he argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and multiple district courts.
Sullivan’s career as a judge began in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan appointed him to be an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, appointed Sullivan as Associate Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1991. Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Sullivan as a US District Judge for the District of Columbia.
Judge Sullivan oversees Michael Flynn case
Having risen to a federal judgeship through bipartisan appointments, Sullivan now presides over the case of Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor who vacated the position after less than a month. Flynn’s has become a politically charged case, with Trump loyalists painting him as a victim of a conspiracy masterminded by former President Barack Obama and his administration.
Initially, the case appeared to be open and shut, with Flynn pleading guilty to the charges. In 2018, following Flynn’s admission of guilt to charges that he had lied to the FBI regarding his contacts with foreign officials, Sullivan stated, “I can’t hide my disgust, my disdain, at this criminal offense.”
Months later, Flynn retracted his plea and hired new attorneys. That decision, along with Flynn’s agreement to work with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, has led to multiple delays in Flynn’s sentencing, most recently in February of this year.
The latest twist in Flynn’s story is the DOJ’s unprecedented decision to drop charges against him. In response, Sullivan requested that a former judge, Gleeson, serve as an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) to determine if the motion to drop the charges should be rejected. Gleeson would also determine if Flynn committed perjury by retracting his original guilty plea.
Who is Judge John Gleeson?
Like Sullivan, Gleeson’s law career includes a mix of private practice and service as a federal judge. He received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in 1975 and completed his law degree at the University of Virginia School of Law in 1980. He spent years as a law clerk as well as a litigation associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore before becoming a federal prosecutor.
After serving as an Assistant US attorney for a decade, Gleeson was appointed as a US District Judge in the Eastern District of New York by President Clinton in 1994. His jurisdiction included Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. He retired as a judge in 2016 and joined the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton as a partner.
A 2016 profile of Gleeson appeared in The New York Times shortly after he announced his retirement. It stated that Gleeson “was known for something of a maverick streak, challenging both government plea deals and harsh, mandatory sentences.”
In a New Yorker video from December 2017, Gleeson said that the job of a judge is “to do justice, is to be fair to people; it’s to respect them.” In the video, part of a series called “We Are Witnesses” that examines the American justice system through personal stories, Gleeson discussed how becoming a judge after being a prosecuting attorney changed his view of sentencing.
One of Gleeson’s notable actions as a judge was petitioning to have a mandatory 57-year sentence that he himself had imposed reduced to 20 years. The prisoner in that case, Francois Holloway, had been found guilty of carjacking in 1996.
The role of a federal judge
Federal judgeships, along with Supreme Court Justices, are established in Article III of the US Constitution and are nominated by the president. After a presidential nomination, judges are confirmed by the US Senate. They are appointed for life but, like the president, can be impeached and removed if found guilty of a crime. Only 15 federal judges have been impeached in US history.
A federal judge serving on one of the 94 US district courts oversees both civil and criminal cases. They preside over the pretrial process – including pleas and jury selection – and trials, which includes sentencing guilty parties. Neither Sullivan nor Gleeson have expressed their political affiliation on the record. This is an accord with the Code of Conduct for United States Judges which prohibits all federal judges from, among other acts, leading or holding “any office in a political organization” or making “a contribution to a political organization or candidate.”
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In this article, “Who are the judges challenging the DOJ in the Michael Flynn case?" published on Tuesday May 19, it was inaccurately stated that the video series Judge John Gleeson appeared in was called “The Marshall Project." The series is in fact named “We Are Witnesses.”