In re Michael T. Flynn, No. 20-5143 (D.C. Cir.) Order and Opinion Denying Emergency Petition for Mandamus entered August 31, 2020.


ICYMI:  Retired General Michael T. Flynn, having served in both the Obama and Trump administrations, was charged with making false statements to federal officers in connection with investigation of foreign involvement in the United States’ 2016 election and related matters.  Gen. Flynn twice entered guilty pleas yet later sought to withdraw those pleas, as exculpatory evidence became available and as the conduct of federal investigators came into question.

The Attorney General requested independent review of the matter subsequent to which the federal government moved to dismiss the charges against Gen. Flynn.  The trial judge retained as amicus a retired judge to aid in determining whether the matter ought to be dismissed, and even if the matter were to be dismissed, whether the trial court might independently hold Gen. Flynn in criminal contempt for perjury.  The court was committed to discerning the foundation for dismissing the case, which would include discovery of the prosecutorial process and hearings.

Gen. Flynn immediately petitioned for a writ a mandamus, which was initially granted.  The trial judge, having been requested by the court of appeals to respond, petitioned for en banc review.  

On Monday, the full complement of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals changed its initial position and denied mandamus relief.  Two judges dissented.

The per curiam opinion.  The majority of the panel concluded that mandamus was not appropriate where the trial court had not yet entered any order concerning the government’s motion to dismiss.  General Flynn could pursue appeal if any ruling were adverse to him, and as such, he had not made a showing that there existed no adequate means of redress.  The separation of powers arguments are speculative and, in the absence of concrete action on the motion to dismiss, cannot support extraordinary relief.  Moreover, the adversities the defendant complained about were not dissimilar from those visited upon other defendants, and unlike many others, the General remained at liberty.  

In addition, the panel majority found no reason to reassign the case to another judge.  The court’s commentary in the course of the proceedings was not unusual and without more cannot support reassignment.  Disqualification based on the trial judge having become a party in the mandamus proceedings could not be supported where the federal court of appeals determined to grant en banc review sua sponte.

Principles only, not politics.  D.C. Circuit Judge Griffith wrote a separate concurrence underscoring that the appellate court concerned itself only with the constitutional and jurisprudential questions presented notwithstanding any public commentary about political matters, including political appointments.

If not now, when?  Judges Henderson and Rao each wrote dissenting opinions and each supported the other’s views.

Circuit Judge Henderson affirmed her view that the initial In re Flynn mandamus ruling and order was correct, and worried that the standard set for reassignment by the panel majority is impossibly high, which will inhibit motions for disqualification that would otherwise be brought. 

The statutory standards for impartiality appear to have been diluted beyond any efficacy where the notion of “leave of court” with respect to prosecutorial motions to dismiss, heretofore liberally construed, now permits scheduling hearings and taking evidence to determine whether leave ought to be granted.  

Flynn’s petition for mandamus would limit the trial judge’s participation in the mandamus proceedings to that which the appellate court might invite, as with the request that the judge reply to the petition.  Rather than accept this limitation, the trial judge disregarded the order of the D.C. Circuit to dismiss the Flynn case and assumed the posture of a party to the litigation by demanding en banc review.  The majority of the panel appears to have sidestepped this concern by announcing that the court had determined that it would proceed to rehearing en banc sua sponte, notwithstanding that an order referenced the non-party judge’s request as the basis for its decision. 

Throughout these proceedings, the trial judge has behaved in a way that causes concerns about impartiality, the judge observed, in that the court offered its “disgust” and “disdain” for Gen. Flynn’s behavior.  The court’s selected amicus — in addition to inviting public participation as amici — was on public record supporting the denial of dismissal.  

Where a trial judge’s participate in mandamus proceedings is by invitation, the trial court’s retention of counsel and behavior as if the judge were a party indicated an opposition to dismissal before the fact.  That the trial court wanted to investigate whether the court itself could conclude that the defendant ought to be held in criminal contempt even if the case were dismissed is an indication that the court itself would pursue the defendant.  

Judge Rao noted that separation of powers principles undergird judicial deference to prosecutor’s motions to dismiss notwithstanding that “leave of court” is sought.  The proceedings envisioned by the trial judge are intended to discover the inner workings of the executive branch, which is not constitutionally appropriate.  Moreover, such an incursion is not necessary in light of the known shortfalls in the government’s conduct with General Flynn.

The contradictory positions assumed by the trial judge are troublesome.  Although the court issued detailed orders about the planned proceedings, counsel at argument before the circuit court stated that the trial judge may not make any findings as a result of the judicial inquest.  This negates the majority’s conclusion that the harm anticipated by petitioner Flynn is “speculative.”

The routine availability of appellate review as a basis for denial of mandamus relief would mean that there would be no extraordinary case warranting mandamus.  “Wishful waiting” is no shield against the harm that judicial involvement in the executive may cause here, particularly where Flynn’s liberty, which the executive no longer seeks to curtail, is threatened by the trial judge’s plan of action. (Slip opinion at 26.)

As ultimately dismissal must be granted and as the judiciary has no power to superintend the executive’s power to direct and to control prosecutions, any denial of dismissal by the trial court would mean mandamus would issue in accordance with precedent.  There is no need to withhold relief where the appellate court would do well to inhibit error. 

Moreover, in light of the known errors of the executive, there is much to be said for permitting self correction and little to be said for further proceedings with the harm that would ensue to petitioner Flynn.  Incarceration is not the benchmark for measuring losses already occasioned and those foreseeable if proceedings continue.

The morass created by this case may not be without instructive value, according to Judge Rao, who concluded:

This case highlights the essential connection between the Constitution’s structure of separated powers and the liberty interests of individuals. While modern administrative government often blurs the separation of powers, at least in criminal cases courts have steadfastly policed the separation of powers, ensuring that a criminal defendant may lose his liberty only upon action by all three branches of the government. By allowing the district court to scrutinize “the reasoning and motives” of the Department of Justice, En Banc Pet. 13 (quotation marks omitted), the majority ducks our obligation to correct judicial usurpations of executive power and leaves Flynn to twist in the wind while the district court pursues a prosecution without a prosecutor. The Constitution’s separation of powers and its protections of individual liberty require a different result. I respectfully dissent. 

2020 08 31 Flynn Mandamus Per Curiam

2020 08 31 Order on Mandamus

2020 08 31 Order on Flynn Mandamus Petition En Banc

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