An entire floor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was closed off for over an hour as attorneys from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election made arguments against an unknown legal team regarding a grand jury subpoena challenge.
According to CNN, the unknown subpoena appeal seems to date back to September, when they spotted the same Mueller legal team, which includes noted criminal law appellate lawyer Michael Dreeben, entering the courtroom to make arguments before Chief Judge Beryl Howell, a trial-level judge who oversees federal grand jury-related cases. Judge Howell issued a ruling on a grand jury subpeona that day, and the losing legal team attempted to appeal the ruling. The appellate court sent the case back to Howell’s courtroom, who held a second sealed hearing in early October. Since then, the case had been sent back to the appellate court. According to Politico, an attorney was overheard discussing sealed Mueller court filings at the appellate court, and said that the unknown grand jury challenge would hear arguments today before a three-judge panel at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A throng of reporters had gathered in and around the courtroom to find out who the mystery plaintiffs and defendants might be.
After hearing two other cases this morning, the three-judge panel took significant measures to clear out the fifth floor of the federal courthouse. The courtroom was cleared of everyone except a dozen legal clerks, then they cleared the vestibule. Security guards swept the courtroom for possible recording devices left behind. They checked the coat closet, locked the door to the attorney’s lounge on that floor, and made everyone clear the elevator bank as well as the stairwells leading up and down from the floor. At one point, even the elevators would not open on the fifth floor.
The network of reporters camped out around the building to attempt to see anyone of note come in or out of the courthouse.
The DC Circuit is about to hear arguments in the sealed grand jury matter. They've sealed not only the courtroom, but the whole floor, so we've been moved away. Haven't recognized anyone going in earlier as being connected to Mueller's office, now we won't be able to see— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) December 14, 2018
About an hour after the lockdown, the dozen clerks were seen leaving the courthouse. No attorneys from either the Mueller investigation or any known defense attorneys were seen leaving the courtroom or even the building. Courthouse security had smuggled everyone out without anyone noticing, keeping the hearing entirely confidential.
“It’s not the norm, that’s for sure,” said Manuel Retureta, a defense lawyer who is frequently at the courthouse, regarding today’s proceedings.
About 10 minutes after the legal clerks had left the building, Dreeben and fellow attorney Zainab Ahmad arrived at Mueller’s office building in a black Justice Department car.
The case appears to involve a recalcitrant witness who is fighting Mueller’s subpoena by challenging Mueller’s legal authority as the Special Counsel. Former federal prosecutor Nelson Cunningham suggested in a Politico op-ed that that it is President Trump himself who received the subpoena and is fighting the case.
“At every level, this matter has commanded the immediate and close attention of the judges involved — suggesting that no ordinary witness and no ordinary issue is involved,” Cunningham wrote in the piece.
President Trump has denied Cunningham’s assertions.