WASHINGTON – The court staff at the D.C. federal courthouse were doing everything they could Friday morning to make sure a secret case believed to be related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe stayed secret. And it’s worked … so far.
What we know about the case is that it is a grand jury dispute that was originally in front of the chief judge of the U.S. district court, Judge Beryl Howell, who has decided other Mueller grand jury issues.
The sealed case has now been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
We can see when court documents are filed in the appeals case, but we can’t open the filings, nor do we know who is even involved in the case — the two sides are referred to in the docket only as “appellant” and “appellee.”
We also know that there was an oral argument scheduled in front of a three-judge appeals court panel Friday morning.
Politico was first to report the signs that it was Mueller linked, by noticing that an appellate judge who previously worked in the Trump White House had recused himself at an early stage in the proceedings, and by overhearing someone asking the appellate court clerk’s office ask for a special counsel filing on the same day a filing was due, according to the secret case’s docket.
Before the appellate panel was to hear the secret case Friday morning, it had two unsealed cases in front of it on the docket. In the hopes that process of elimination might help me figure out which lawyers who showed up at the court Friday morning were here for the secret case, I looked up and downloaded photos of the lawyers on the public cases on the docket. Sure enough, I saw them come in Friday morning, but there were plenty of other people — law clerks and the like — who came through that I couldn’t immediately identify.
I went into the courtroom while the court was hearing arguments for the second case, hoping that when staff cleared it out for the sealed case, whoever remained would give me a hint about what this likely Mueller case is about. I could at least confirm for certain that it was a Mueller case if I saw a member of his team enter the courtroom. No such luck. When we were told by court staff to leave, the only people hanging around in the courtroom were clerks, who would be allowed to stay.
Making sleuthing out some details even trickier, the court staff then closed the entire courthouse floor where the case is being heard, meaning reporters can’t stake out who enters and leaves the courtroom. By my count, there are more than a half dozen ways the lawyers can get to and from the floor of the federal courthouse where the appeals court sits.
On my way out of the courtroom, I lingered in a lobby where one can hang his or her coat before entering the courtroom. I overheard one court staffer note to another that there was a closet off the lobby and that they needed to make sure they checked there while clearing everyone out.