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Profile Of Judge Sullivan, Criticized For Handling Of Michael Flynn Case


So he is the judge who's been overseeing former national security adviser Michael Flynn's case. The Justice Department's move to drop Flynn's case has put this judge, Emmet Sullivan, right in the spotlight. So who is he? Here's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: For 36 years, Emmet Sullivan has been a judge, most of that time on the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Friends and colleagues, as well as attorneys who know him, say Sullivan will take the time to dig in on the facts and the law, particularly if he senses either side in a case isn't playing it straight.

ELLEN HUVELLE: He is diligent. He's well-prepared. And he is relentless in getting to the bottom of things.

LUCAS: That's Judge Ellen Huvelle. She has served alongside Sullivan for more than 20 years on the district court.

HUVELLE: He isn't somebody who's going to rely on the government's representations. I think he's had enough experience to know that he has to keep digging if he wants to get a fair representation.

LUCAS: The case that hammered that home for Sullivan was the Justice Department's scandal-ridden prosecution of Ted Stevens, who, at the time of his corruption trial, was a sitting senator from Alaska. A jury found Stevens guilty. But after evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerged, Sullivan tossed the verdict.

He also appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. The special prosecutor found government lawyers had systematically withheld exculpatory evidence, behavior Sullivan called shocking and disturbing. Since then, Sullivan has issued a standing order in every case requiring the government to provide the defense any favorable evidence in its possession. Huvelle says it's something Sullivan takes extremely seriously.

HUVELLE: Woe to the prosecutor who doesn't comply with that. I think that Emmet will - he will be before the bar before Emmet got us to bench.

LUCAS: Emmet Sullivan was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a Metropolitan police officer. He graduated in 1968 from Howard University, where he also got his law degree. Karl Racine is the attorney general for Washington, D.C., and has known Sullivan for years.

KARL RACINE: This is a judge who is part of the community, cares deeply about every aspect of the community.

LUCAS: Sullivan still speaks to students at his old high school. Local elementary school kids make class trips to his courtroom. For years, he's visited the D.C. jail to speak with inmates on the verge of being released to encourage them to make the right choices in the future.

RACINE: I've heard him answer questions and talk to young people where he's made it clear that they have every bit as much potential as he had as a kid growing up in D.C.

LUCAS: Sullivan's entire career has been rooted in the city he's always called home. He worked for around a decade at a prominent civil rights law firm in Washington before President Reagan appointed him to the D.C. Superior Court in 1984. He was elevated to the D.C. appeals court seven years later by President George H.W. Bush. And then in 1994, President Clinton tapped Sullivan for the federal bench. His first law clerk was Chari Anhouse. She says Sullivan sought her input and listened to her views even if he disagreed with her. And he set a standard that has stayed with her for the past 36 years.

CHARI ANHOUSE: The standard is basically that you have to do the right thing even though it's not easy all the time.

LUCAS: Over his lengthy career, Sullivan has had his fair share of high-profile cases. But few, if any of them, have been scrutinized through the partisan lens quite like Michael Flynn's. Standing before Sullivan in a wood-paneled courtroom, Flynn pleaded guilty under oath to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. But after cooperating extensively with investigators, Flynn reversed course last summer. He now says he was set up by the FBI. And he's asked to withdraw his guilty plea. Then in May, this happened.


TERRY MORAN: Now, the Department of Justice has just announced that it is dropping all of the charges in the criminal case against Michael Flynn.

LUCAS: It was a highly controversial decision that has been lauded on the right and condemned on the left. In the middle, now, sits Sullivan, who has to sign off on the government's request to dismiss the case. So far, he hasn't done so. Instead, he's done something unusual. He's appointed a retired federal judge to argue against the government's position, a move that Flynn and his supporters, including the president, have slammed. But those who know Sullivan say his actions here are consistent with his history of holding both sides, but in particular, the government, to a high bar. Again, Anhouse.

ANHOUSE: He wants the smartest, best people's input into what he views as an incredibly big and important decision about the administration of justice that everybody's watching.

LUCAS: It also provides an adversarial process that will force the government to publicly defend its decision. Anhouse and others say Sullivan will take the time necessary to dig until he's satisfied. For now, he's scheduled a hearing for mid-July. In the meantime, Flynn's lawyers have filed an emergency petition to try to force Sullivan to dismiss the case.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.