Closed Court Delays Trial of Ex-White House Counsel

WASHINGTON (CN) — Under fire after she barred press and the public from jury selection at the start of trial for former White House counsel Greg Craig, a federal judge agreed Tuesday to restart jury selection with a new 125-person pool.

“I don’t have a problem with you telling me that I made a mistake yesterday … and that that mistake lies at my feet,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said in court this morning. 

Greg Craig, left, arrives ahead of his arraignment at federal court in Washington on April 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A day earlier, Judge Jackson closed off the start of voir dire to all but eight members of the press. Jackson ordered these reporters out, too, however, after the pool of 70 potential jurors had collectively answered 26 questions. For the remainder of the day, behind closed doors, the parties whittled the pool down to 35 through individual questioning.

William Murphy, an attorney for Craig with the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, said the procedure violated his client’s rights to a speedy and public trial.

“I don’t think you can distinguish between the press and the public in this situation,” Murphy said.

Taking aim as well at the notices the pool received in the mail from the Jury Commissioner’s Office, Murphy said the warning that the trial would run at least two weeks left little doubt about the case’s high profile.

“A couple of them were clever enough to figure out that it was Mr. Craig’s case,” Murphy said of the jurors. 

The jury pool that is brought in Wednesday will be unaware going in that the trial may now run into September — though both sides agreed to not hold arguments on Aug. 30 to prevent the elimination of jurors with travel plans for Labor Day weekend.

Jackson initially estimated that a new pool would result in a 10-week delay, pushing the trial into October. She revised that later, however, calling it optimal to delay the trial by no more than three days with opening statements likely on Friday.

Prosecutors set the stage for the jury-selection do-over with an alert to Craig’s legal team and Judge Jackson that Monday’s proceedings may have violated Supreme Court precedent.

Murphy noted today: “We were surprised but we shouldn’t have been.”

In the 2010 case Presley v. Georgia, the justices sided 7-2 with a convicted cocaine trafficker whose uncle, the only public observer in court that day, was shut out of jury selection.

Jackson appeared this morning to stand by her decision, but said it was the first time she closed off her court to the public.

“It was a substitute for the proceedings that are standard in this court,” Jackson said, adding that potential jurors have complained in the past that they do not feel comfortable answering personal questions in front of the public even with a husher, a device that emits white noise to block the public from hearing questioning during jury selection at the bench.

Indeed during proceedings on Monday, Jackson noted, one potential juror shared information on an “egregious crime” a family member committed, while another disclosed they have a mental illness.

On Wednesday, jury selection will be open to the public.

“I appreciate you being on top of this issue,” Jackson told the government.

Craig, 74, was charged back in April as part of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the 2016 election.

A lawyer himself who was White House counsel under President Barack Obama, Craig had been a partner at Skadden Arps when Paul Manafort tapped the firm for a report that bolstered his client, a pro-Kremlin political part in Ukraine called the Party of Regions. 

The statute of limitations has already expired for the U.S. to charge Craig with violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but Craig could go to prison for five years if convicted of having lied to the Justice Department to avoid foreign-agent-registration requirements.

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