The top judge on the Washington, DC, federal district court said Thursday that judges in the federal court will not be influenced by public criticism after tweets sent earlier this week by President Donald Trump over the sentencing recommendation for his former adviser, Roger Stone.
“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,” said DC District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell. “Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
Hand-wringing overtook Washington this week following the Justice Department’s lessening of its sentencing recommendation in the Stone case and four prosecutors quitting the case in protest.
But Howell’s statement on Thursday is a reminder that the courts operate separately from the politics of the executive branch – and that no matter what the Justice Department asks for, judges alone have the authority to decide the sentences criminal defendants should serve.
Howell’s comment is also notable as yet another instance of federal judges, especially those in Washington, asserting their independence in the wake of Trump’s attacks of the judiciary.
Howell is the chief judge of the court where Judge Amy Berman Jackson sits.
Jackson is set to sentence Stone, a former Trump political adviser and longtime friend, next Thursday on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering related to his efforts to reach WikiLeaks and help the Trump campaign in 2016. A jury found Stone guilty in November.
Four federal prosecutors resigned from the Stone case earlier this week after the Justice Department backed off its initial sentencing recommendation, which had called for seven to nine years in prison. That initial recommendation led Trump to tweet his criticisms of prosecutors working on the case, calling it a “horrible and very unfair situation.”
Trump also called the sentencing recommendation “ridiculous” and an “insult to our country.”
“I thought it was a disgraceful recommendation,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Tuesday, claiming he did not direct the Justice Department to change its sentencing recommendation. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Trump also tweeted about Jackson on Tuesday, saying she put his former campaign manager Paul Manafort in solitary confinement. That is not true – Jackson sent Manafort to jail as he awaited trial and ultimately sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in prison, but she didn’t control the conditions inside the jails where he was kept and he was never held in solitary confinement for punitive reasons.
It’s extremely rare for judges to make statements about ongoing cases – even if they’re not presiding over them.
Howell’s comments come on the same day that Judge Thomas Griffith of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals made oblique commentary about the political climate in a short speech at a ceremony at the courthouse in Washington.
Griffith applauded Judge Merrick Garland for protecting the rule of law, noting that it “needs protection from partisans and demagogues.” He was speaking at the ceremony for Garland to pass his gavel as chief judge over to the next Circuit Chief, Judge Sri Srinivasan.
Garland notably stayed at the circuit court when the Republican-led Senate blocked him from having Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2016before his nomination to the highest court was withdrawn.
Garland’s remarks were apolitical, as was a letter read at the ceremony from Roberts thanking Garland for his service. Nearly every federal judge from the district and circuit courts in Washington attended the ceremony, including Howell and Jackson.
Howell’s statement also comes on the same day that Attorney General William Barr said in an ABC News interview that the President’s tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
Chief Justice John Roberts has previously rebuked the President after he asserted that federal judges were politically biased against him, and other federal judges have also made public statements that their branch of the government is independent of the political mire that often grips the other two branches.
DC District Judge Paul Friedman, for instance, said in a November speech that Trump’s personal attacks on judges are helping to “undermine faith in the rule of law itself.” He gave that speech to the Washington legal community in the same courthouse where Griffith, Garland, Jackson and Howell sit.
This story has been updated with additional context.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.