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National Perspective | UPDATE

D.C. Chief Judge Under Scrutiny for Assignments

Johnson sent cases involving the Clinton administration to jurists he appointed, triggering a probe.

May 16, 2000|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Norma Holloway Johnson, the chief federal district judge in the nation's capital, is on the hot seat.

Presiding over a court system that handles more high-profile political cases than any other, Johnson is being investigated by her peers for assigning half a dozen criminal cases involving friends and associates of President Clinton to judges appointed by the president.

Because Johnson, an appointee of former President Carter, has never previously seemed to favor the Clinton administration, the formal judicial inquiry has surprised some legal authorities inside and outside the courthouse.

Legal experts agreed, however, that going outside the random computer assignment system is a prerogative of chief judges that is seldom used.

"She had the authority to do it," said a prominent Republican lawyer who is close to several GOP-appointed judges. "I don't see how they [Johnson's colleagues] could question it. I think the investigation will result in a big fat zero."

Johnson, 66, the first African American woman to head the U.S. court system here, angered some Republicans when she sent criminal cases against presidential friends Webster L. Hubbell and Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie to judges recently appointed by Clinton.

Hubbell, accused of tax evasion, and Trie, charged with fund-raising abuses, wound up settling their prosecutions with plea agreements.

Johnson also assigned four other campaign fund-raising cases to Clinton judges, including that of Miami businessman Howard Glicken, a former fund-raiser for Vice President Al Gore. Glicken was sentenced to community service after Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., among others, wrote a letter pleading for leniency.

Initially, Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, filed a complaint against Johnson for her Hubbell and Trie assignments, but it was thrown out as "frivolous" by U.S. Appellate Judge Stephen Williams, a Republican appointee.

The controversy deepened, however, when Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) disclosed the four additional assignments. The court's 13-member judicial council then named a five-judge panel to take a closer look.

Now the matter has become even more serious for Johnson. The judicial panel has hired former Republican U.S. Atty. Joe D. Whitley to conduct a full-scale investigation. He served in the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations as a prosecutor in Georgia and as a Justice Department official in Washington.

"This is extremely rare," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who is a close observer of the courts. "I have never heard of a judicial investigation that has proceeded to the point of hiring an outside investigator. Usually this is all done internally."

Johnson, while refusing to answer questions about her actions, has defended her conduct in writing, declaring that "these cases were assigned to highly capable federal judges, [and] politics was not and is never a factor in our case assignments."

Federal court rules for the District of Columbia allow the chief judge "to specially assign protracted or complex criminal cases to consenting judges when circumstances warrant," Johnson said in her statement. Some cases she specially assigned, however, fit neither category.

Supporters of Johnson asserted that she has never been known to favor the Clinton administration. Two years ago, for example, during the long grand jury investigation by then-Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr into the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, Johnson twice ruled against the White House on key issues.

Rejecting the president's claim of executive privilege, the chief judge said that Starr's prosecutors were free to interrogate Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey and political strategist Sidney Blumenthal about their knowledge of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. Similarly, she rejected a later claim of privilege by the Secret Service, which argued that agents who protect Clinton should not be compelled to testify about their observations of his conduct.

The White House appealed both rulings and lost.

Johnson also forced Lewinsky to return from California in January 1999 to cooperate with House of Representatives managers who were seeking Clinton's removal from office. This prompted a storm of criticism from Senate Democrats.

If Johnson was not politically motivated, as many now concede, what led her to make special assignments?

Some Republican observers believe it was consistent with her reputation for "controlling everything she touches," as one put it. Another said that she may have been trying to ingratiate herself with new judges by awarding them high-profile cases. The judicial council could wind up disciplining her if it determines that her conduct was questionable.

In any event, Johnson no longer will be able to make such special assignments because the district rule that allowed them has since been abolished.

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