Judge in Scooter Libby, Sibel Edmonds cases is redacted in action

What do two of the biggest national-security news stories of the century — the Valerie Plame leak scandal and the legal case of FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds — have in common?

They both are being presided over by the same federal judge in the District of Colombia, Reggie Walton, a Bush appointee to the federal court and a man who appears to have a few well-kept secrets of his own.

All federal judges are required under ethics rules to file what is known as “financial disclosure reports.”

The disclosure statement filed by Walton, which was obtained through the dogged efforts of a conservative watchdog group called Judicial Watch, is curious in what it does not reveal. Remember, this judge is arguably handling two of the most sensitive and potentially far-reaching challenges to the free press and the public’s right to know of our times. In the Plamegate case, a top White House aid, Scooter Libby, has already been indicted and additional indictments may be forthcoming (Karl Rove?). In addition, a bevy of insider journalists in the media-center establishment have been subpoenaed to testify in the case, and one, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, has already done jail time for her initial refusal to identify her sources on the story.

Edmonds was fired from her job as an FBI translator after blowing the whistle on alleged espionage being carried out by a fellow FBI employee. She was prevented from pursuing a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit filed in 2002 (based on alleged violations of her civil rights) because of the state-secrets privilege claim, a claim upheld by Judge Walton. That claim essentially shut down her ability to present evidence in the case under the smokescreen that it would jeopardize national security.

An appeal in the Edmonds case was recently rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. She now has a separate case pending in federal court in Washington, D.C. Ironically, in both cases, Judge Walton was randomly assigned to hear her complaints at the District Court level. Walton also has randomly been assigned to hear the Plamegate case involving Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

So given the high-stakes poker being played in both these cases, one civil and one criminal, why has no one in the establishment press bothered to ask what is contained in Judge Walton’s financial disclosure statement? After all, his investments and financial backers would be of keen interest in gauging his ability to hear these cases in an unbiased manner, right?

We already know that Walton has been a Bush-team insider for years. He grew up on the hardscrabble side of life in a steel town in Pennsylvania, and by his own admission was arrested three times as a teenager and even witnessed a stabbing while participating in a street fight. After beating the odds and making it through law school, he rose quickly in the Washington legal establishment, earning an appointment from former President Reagan to a District of Colombia Superior Court judgeship. He was later taken under the wing of the self-styled man of virtue William Bennett, serving as a top gun in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during Bennett’s tenure there. Then, in 2001, current President Bush appointed him as a federal judge in the District of Columbia.

So it would be natural to suppose that Walton has some loyalty to the Bush administration, but that alone is not proof of bias with respect to the Edmonds and Valerie Plame-related cases.

Still, Edmonds points out that the way Walton landed on her original whistleblower-related case (the one the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear), as well her currently pending case, does seem a bit more than a cosmic coincidence.

“Walton was the original judge on my case (the Supreme Court case),  when we filed our case (in District Court in Washington, D.C.) in July 2002,” Edmonds says. “Another judge was assigned to it, then, mysteriously and with no reason, it was transferred to another judge, and then again, a few weeks later, it was transferred to Walton.  

“Walton is now assigned to my (new) case, … another random one.”

So Judge Walton seems to be in a critical role in serving as the point man in the federal judicial system for two explosive cases — the Edmonds civil case and Libby’s criminal case — both of which have vast implications for the White House and for the country in general.

So shouldn’t we know who’s buttering Walton’s bread in terms of financial backing? Why have ethics rules mandating such disclosures, if the information is not disclosed in cases, such as these, where the stakes are so high?

Well, it seems, at least according to the only document that Judicial Watch could shake loose in its public-records quest, that Walton doesn’t think so. His financial disclosure statement, the one released for public inspection through Judicial Watch, is completely redacted, every line of it.

Take a look here for yourself.

Now, ask yourself, why would that be, and what might lurk in the shadows of Judge Walton’s fiscal closet? If there nothing to hide, then there is nothing to lose by shedding some light on the retractions, is there?

But let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s probably all fine -- just a safety precaution, as the following excerpt from a 2004 Government Accountability Office report explains:

"The Ethics in Government Act requires judges and other federal officials to file financial disclosure reports as a check on conflicts of interest. However, given potential security risks to federal judges, Congress authorized redactions of information that could endanger them. This redaction authority is set to expire at the end of 2005."

That has to be why the big boys in the media have ignored this issue to date, right? After all, there are some things that take precedence over national security and the outing of covert CIA operatives.

If not, and these redactions do not, in reality, protect Judge Walton's security, but rather only his dignity, then we have to wonder why our fearless media leaders have been content to graze on other appetizers.

But not to fear, I'm sure if there is cause for alarm, we'll hear the media-pundit elephants charging through the fields toward this alfalfa patch soon.

In the mean time, let’s keep this whole messy topic between you and me, for now. We wouldn’t want to stir up any disharmony inside the Washington press-corps insiders’ circuit. They’ve got future cocktail parties to attend….

Comments

If jury duty weren't alphabetical by voting rolls

... and I hadn't had judges swear it was completely random, I'd be less likely to question the randomness of Walton's assignments.  Quite apart from how he got the cases, the public should be able to know his financials.

This redaction authority is set to expire at the end of 2005.

So his financial statement can be FOIAd again, to better results, January 1?

Random?

I wonder if the assignment of the second case was really supposed to be random.  Many, if not most, courts have a policy or written rule saying that when a second case is filed that's "related" to a pending case, it will be assigned to the judge who has the first case.  Of course if they do have such a rule but are claiming the assignment happened randomly, that's smelly.

I also wonder (and am right now either too busy or too lazy to look it up, just like I am on whether there's a written "related case" rule in D.C.) whether the Freedom of Information Act exempts from disclosure courts' administrative work, like assignment and reassignment of cases.

I guess Kafka or Heller or Orwell could have commented better than I about a judge whose normally public papers are made secret by his invocation of "security" decides whether the government can shield its misbehavior with an assertion of "security."  I'm not going to hold my breath for a disclosure on January 1.

Random math in the Halls of Justice

Reber,

Here are the rules I was able to find for the DC Circuit on such matters

Rules of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia

LCvR 40.3
Manner of Assignment

RANDOM ASSIGNMENT.

Except as otherwise provided by these Rules, civil, criminal and miscellaneous cases
shall be assigned to judges of this court selected at random in the following manner….

THE EXCEPTION

LCvR 40.5

Related Cases

(a) 3

Civil, including miscellaneous, cases are deemed related when the earliest is
still pending on the merits in the District Court and they (i) relate to common
property, or (ii) involve common issues of fact, or (iii) grow out of the same
event or transaction or (iv) involve the validity or infringement of the same
patent.

Now, here’s a bit of additional information on the handling of Sibel Edmonds’ case. First, Judge Reggie Walton dismissed her original lawsuit in the summer of 2004. The second pending lawsuit was not filed until March 2005. So that appears to fail to meet the “still pending” requirement of the DC Circuit’s rules on these matters.

But of more interest, according to my sources on this, is the following timeline on how Edmonds’ original case was handled. [Along with the original whistleblower litigation, Edmonds also filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at about the same time.]

Timeline

  1. Edmonds’ initial case was filed in the federal District Court in D.C. in July 2002. Judge Richard Roberts was assigned to the case, randomly.
  2. After some initial action in the case, things bogged down for about two months. Then, all of a sudden, the case was reassigned to Judge Reggie Walton.
  3. Edmonds’ attorneys filed a motion asking the case to be assigned to Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who is also the judge for Edmonds’ FOIA case filed in May 2002. Edmonds’ attorneys argued that the cases were related under the D.C. circuit rules, and so they should both be handled by Judge Huvelle.
  4. The court granted the request and Edmonds’ whistleblower case was transferred to Judge Huvelle’s court in the spring of 2003
  5. About two weeks later, however, the case was removed from Judge Huvelle, and sent back to Judge Walton, randomly, no reasons cited.
What happened?

What Happened?

I don't know.  If the mess weren't so rancid, I'd think a clerk applied the untypically specific "Related Case" rule to the last case logically instead of literally (the earlier case being on appeal, it could well again pend on in the merits in the District Court).

On that and, moreso, on the earlier bouncing around I think the litigants are due an explanation (and perhaps a corrected assignment).  And I think I, as a member of the public, am entitled to an explanation of why my government did what it did (I say that as a person who can't even get a straight answer on how to give a book to a jail inmate).

Many or most or all federal court clerk's offices are horrible bureaucratic fiefdoms.  Employees, from topmost to lowliest, run things, make decisions, and flex their bureaucratic muscle with only tangential regard for written rules and no regard to getting cases justly decided; internal standard practices and procedures are so complex that there's much room for error and varying interpretation.  In other words, most clerk's offices are snakepits ripe for corruption and favoritism.  In older simpler times, many courts, both state and federal, assigned cases by simple rotation among the judges; a lawyer with a "friend" in the clerk's office who got nice Christmas presents could just about pick the judge that would get the case he (gender specific pronoun intended) was waiting to file when the preferred number came up.  Now that clerks have arrogated themselves more power, do we think they're less prone to play favorites?

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