A judge on Monday defended his decision not to quickly approve the Justice Department's request to dismiss its own criminal case against former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying that the department's reversal in the case was unusual and he wanted to carefully consider the request before ruling on it.
The brief from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan offers the most detailed explanation for his refusal to immediately sign off on the department's decision to drop its case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. It raises the prospect for a drawn-out clash between two branches of government over whether a judge can be forced to unwind a guilty plea at the Justice Department's behest.
Flynn’s attorneys have urged the Washington-based federal appeals court to order Sullivan to grant the department’s request. But Sullivan laid out in detail his reasons for his concern as he urged the appeals court to stay out of the case until he has a chance to study the dismissal request, which he said he may ultimately grant.
“The question before this Court is whether it should short-circuit this process, forbid even a limited inquiry into the government’s motion, and order that motion granted,” lawyers for Sullivan wrote. "The answer is no.”
Flynn admitted lying to the FBI about having discussed sanctions during the presidential transition with the then-Russian ambassador, a topic recently released transcripts of the call show the men talked about in detail. But the Justice Department said last month that the FBI should never have interviewed Flynn in the first place and that the communication he had with the ambassador was entirely appropriate.
Flynn enjoys strong support from Trump and the conservative media, but the decision to drop the case outraged former law enforcement officials who were involved in the investigation as well as many Democrats.
Rather than grant the request, Sullivan appointed a retired federal judge, John Gleeson, to argue against the Justice Department's position and to consider whether Flynn could be held in criminal contempt for perjury since he had previously pleaded guilty under oath to lying and was now saying otherwise. He also invited outside parties to weigh in.
In their brief Monday, Sullivan's lawyers cited what they said were numerous irregularities about the case, noting that “it is unusual for a criminal defendant to claim innocence and move to withdraw his guilty plea after repeatedly swearing under oath that he committed the crime.”
Beyond that, they said, "It is unprecedented for an Acting U.S. Attorney to contradict the solemn representations that career prosecutors made time and again, and undermine the district court’s legal and factual findings, in moving on his own to dismiss the charge years after two different federal judges accepted the defendant’s plea.
The judge's brief also noted that the Justice Department's motion to dismiss the case was not signed by any of the career prosecutors involved in the case, and cited “minimal legal authority” for its positions.
Though Sullivan may ultimately grant the Justice Department's motion, he was duty-bound to seriously consider the significant legal issues that the case raised, it said.