WASHINGTON – A national association of federal judges has called an emergency meeting Tuesday to address growing concerns about the intervention of Justice Department officials and President Donald Trump in politically sensitive cases, the group’s president said Monday.
Philadelphia U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe, who heads the independent Federal Judges Association, said the group “could not wait” until its spring conference to weigh in on a deepening crisis that has enveloped the Justice Department and Attorney General William Barr.
“There are plenty of issues that we are concerned about,” Rufe told USA TODAY. “We’ll talk all of this through.”
Rufe, nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, said the group of more than 1,000 federal jurists called for the meeting last week after Trump criticized prosecutors' initial sentencing recommendation for his friend Roger Stone and the Department of Justice overruled them.
Trump also took a swipe at the federal judge who is set to preside at Stone’s sentencing hearing Thursday.
“Is this the judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?” Trump tweeted last week, referring to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. “How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!"
Jackson jailed Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, prior to his convictions in two separate financial fraud cases after he sought to tamper with potential witnesses.
Rufe said the judges' association is “not inclined to get involved with an ongoing case,” but she voiced strong support for Jackson.
“I am not concerned with how a particular judge will rule,” Rufe said, praising Jackson's reputation. “We are supportive of any federal judge who does what is required.”
The unusual concern voiced by the judges’ group comes in the wake of an equally unusual protest. More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials called on Barr to resign Sunday, claiming his handling of the Stone case "openly and repeatedly flouted" the principle of equal justice.
"Although there are times when political leadership appropriately weighs in on individual prosecutions, it is unheard of for the department’s top leaders to overrule line prosecutors, who are following established policies, in order to give preferential treatment to a close associate of the president, as Attorney General Barr did in the Stone case," the letter reads.
Stone was found guilty in November of lying to the House Intelligence Committee and obstructing its investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The 67-year-old fixture in GOP politics was also found guilty of threatening a potential congressional witness.
Last week, prosecutors recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. The Department of Justice overruled them the next day, prompting all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case. One of them resigned entirely from the Justice Department.
Last week's move in the Stone case was followed by Friday's disclosure that Barr had appointed an outside prosecutor to review the criminal case of Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn's was among the first prosecutions brought by former Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller in a 22-month investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
The decision to review the Flynn case comes as Barr has engaged in reviews of equally sensitive matters, including an ongoing criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation.
The attorney general has acknowledged the Justice Department is evaluating information provided by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney who sought to tar the president’s potential presidential rival, Joe Biden, and revive a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the last election.
Tuesday, the federal judges are set to convene via a conference call involving 15 to 20 officers and members of the association's executive committee, Rufe said.
Founded in 1982, the 1,100-member association supports "a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary," according to its website.
Rufe said the group has not decided how it will report the result of its meeting, if at all. "We just could not wait until April to discuss matters of this importance," she said.
After Trump took Jackson to task on Twitter last week, another jurist – District of Columbia Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell – appeared to rally to Jackson's side.
“The Judges of this Court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the Probation Office and victims; and their own judgment and experience," Howell said in a written statement. "Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
Contributing: Kristine Phillips