Law360 (March 31, 2020, 7:36 PM EDT) -- A D.C. federal judge said ongoing court disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic is preventing him from immediately reviewing the unredacted version of former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who in early March slammed Attorney General William Barr's handling of the long-sought report, revealed Monday he obtained the document from federal attorneys Monday in response to his recent court order in two consolidated Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold and the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Judge Walton wrote in a minute order that he cannot conduct an in camera review of the report until the federal courthouse resumes its normal operations on April 20, 2020, unless the court's normal operations are further suspended due to the pandemic.
The judge cited a March 16 standing order Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell issued, putting off all federal civil and criminal jury trials in D.C. federal courts. This is part of a nationwide effort by federal courthouses that are enacting restrictive measures to curtail public gatherings to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
EPIC in a statement said the judge's review of the Mueller report "marks one of the most significant 'in camera' reviews in the history of the Freedom of Information Act."
Joshua Burday of Loevy & Loevy, who's representing Leopold, told Law360 on Tuesday, "We look forward to the court's in camera review as soon as it is that can be safely done."
The judge will examine the report and determine whether the redactions were made appropriately, and indicate what information should be made public in response to the FOIA suits' demand for access.
In a March 5 ruling, Judge Walton rejected the U.S. Department of Justice's summary judgment bid to block the release of any unredacted information from the report, which Mueller completed and sent to the agency last spring following the conclusion of his wide-ranging Russia probe.
Mueller didn't find sufficient evidence to establish that a conspiracy existed between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the presidential contest. But the heavily redacted 448-page report the DOJ released last April outlined numerous efforts Trump made to thwart the investigation. Mueller did not clear the president of any wrongdoing.
Barr's handling of the report came under scrutiny by Democrats and other critics. Media reports at the time also indicated that Mueller had written a letter critical of the lack of context in Barr's summary of the document.
Judge Walton lambasted Barr in the March ruling, saying that it appears the attorney general "distorted" the document's contents and issued "misleading public statements."
The judge noted the speed with which Barr released his summary of Mueller's principal conclusions. That coupled with the fact that Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of Mueller's findings caused the judge to question, he said, whether Barr's intent "was to create a one-sided narrative ... a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version."
The judge added that the inconsistencies between Barr's statements — made at a time when the public couldn't verify them — and conflicting portions of the redacted report "cause the court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse ... in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller report to the contrary."
DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec pushed back on the judge's assertions the next day, asserting that Barr played no role in the department's process of deciding what to redact in the Mueller report. The decision was made by DOJ attorneys. who consulted with senior members of Mueller's team, prosecutors in U.S. attorneys' offices and members of the intelligence community, Kupec said in a statement.
EPIC is represented in-house by Marc Rotenberg, Alan Butler, John Davisson and Enid Zhou.
Jason Leopold is represented by Joshua Burday and Matthew Topic of Loevy & Loevy.
The government is represented by Ethan P. Davis, Elizabeth Shapiro and Courtney D. Enlow of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division.
The consolidated case is Electronic Privacy Information Center v. U.S. Department of Justice, case number 1:19-cv-00810, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath. Editing by Bruce Goldman.
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