On June 24th, 2020 in a 2 - 1 vote, a Washington appeals court ordered Judge Emmet Sullivan to throw out the case against Michael Flynn because both the prosecution and the defense wanted the case dismissed:

By a vote of 2-1, the three-judge panel on the appeals court ruled Wednesday that the lower-court judge, Sullivan, had intruded on the Justice Department's "charging authority" by seeking further investigation after the department moved to dismiss Flynn's case.

An attorney appointed by Sullivan to counsel him about the government's decision in the case called the move to dismiss an abuse of power by the Justice Department because it was interceding in the case of a friend of President Trump.


Since the Judge now has an attorney, can this Judge appeal to the Supreme Court (or appeal again starting from a different court jurisdiction) to potentially allow him to continue his decision to review if the Michael Flynn case should be dismissed?

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    I have updated my answer to reflect that fact that en banc review of the panel decision has been ordered.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 3, 2020 at 20:47
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    If you haven't seen it, you might find this short piece on the history of 48(a) interesting. It argues 48(a) was written to keep well-connected defendants from getting off: stanfordlawreview.org/online/…
    – Just a guy
    Aug 4, 2020 at 16:26

2 Answers 2


The Main Answer: The Judge Can't Appeal; But Other People Can

Since the Judge now has an attorney, can this Judge appeal to the Supreme Court (or appeal again starting from a different court jurisdiction) to potentially allow him to continue his decision to review if the Michael Flynn case should be dismissed?

Not exactly. It is potentially subject to appeal, but not by the judge.

But the question contains an understandable and natural false premise that confuses the issue.

The attorney appointed by the Court to present the position abandoned by the Justice Department is not a lawyer for the judge (who has absolute immunity from liability). Instead, the attorney is someone appointed to provide additional representation to "the People" on the theory that the Justice Department in unable to fully represent the interests of "the People" due to an alleged conflict of interest.

The attorney appointed by the judge to present a position that the Justice Department abandoned, might have standing to do so, but the judge himself or herself, while listed as the Respondent in the case, is only a nominal party and not a true real party in interest.

Also en banc review of a panel decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals can be raised sua sponte by any judge in the Circuit, without prompting from any part for further review (which is what happened in this case).

The Archaic Federal Writ of Mandamus Practice Explained

There is a general rule that says that only final decisions of trial courts can be appealed to an appellate court.<1> Thus, usually, a criminal defendant can only appeal from a criminal case after the criminal defendant has been convicted of a crime and sentenced for that crime. But, this general rule has exceptions. A request for a writ of mandamus is one way to get around this general rule.

A writ is a court order directed at a government official by a court having jurisdiction over the official, usually, but not always, in a matter in which the government official is not alleged to have done anything making the government official eligible for punishment personally.

For example, a writ of execution, is a court order directing the sheriff or some other government official, to take action to enforce a court order awarding someone a money judgment that the prevailing part seeks to have the sheriff involuntarily seize.

A request for writ of mandamus (i.e. for an order directing a government official subordinate to the court to take a non-discretionary action in a court case) is structured in the old fashioned approach used in federal court as a lawsuit against a judge brought in a court with supervising authority over the judge.

But, in substance, this is a legal fiction and formality used (in this context, writs of mandamus are used in more than one way) to provide review of trial court decisions prior to the entry of a final decision on the merits in a case (something also called an "interlocutory appeal").

This process was established in the All Writs Act of 1789 (now codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1651) that applied to the federal courts the process in place immediately prior to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789 in the courts of the American Colonies. The procedure used in the pre-constitution courts of the American colonies was borrowed from English common law procedural practices then in place. The English practice was in turn originally established during or not long before the reign of King Edward II (reigned 1307 to 1327 CE). Those procedures have then evolved over time. This procedure was formally established in the U.S. in the federal courts by case law interpreting the All Writs Act (the All Writs Act itself is only a sentence or two long).

Put another way, the All Writs Act gave the federal courts the authority to order other government officials (including but not limited to judges) to do things to carry out federal court orders, in the same broad circumstances where English common law courts has the power to do so, and using the same procedures.

Originally, a writ of mandamus really was a lawsuit against a judge, and there are contexts where a writ of mandamus is sought against a government official other than a judge that continue to be a lawsuit against a government official. But, now that is just a formality and not a real lawsuit in this context, and that has been the case in cases involving writs of mandamus filed against judges for hundreds of years.

<1> A direct appeal of right from a final criminal conviction is a relatively new innovation in the federal courts in the U.S.. The right to bring a direct appeal of right of a criminal conviction secured in federal court did not exist until 1890. And, the right to bring a direct appeal of right of a criminal conviction is not constitutionally guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it exists solely by virtue of a federal statute. Prior to 1890, most judicial review of federal criminal convictions was conducted via writs of habeas corpus (which has much narrower grounds upon which relief can be granted) or via Presidential pardons.

The Modern Approach Used In Many Jurisdictions Contrasted

The modern approach designed to avoid the confusion associated with nominally suing the judge, is to create a court rule replacing the old fashioned legal fiction of writ of mandamus practice, in which someone files an interlocutory appeal captioned (in a criminal case) as People v. Defendant, or as Defendant v. People (depending upon who files first) which is handled essentially like an ordinary appeal but with shorter deadlines and the requirement that grounds for considering the appeal at all prior to a final order in the case be established.

For example, in Colorado, where I practice, the equivalent procedure to a writ of mandamus with the judge named as Respondent in a federal court, is called a "Colorado Appellate Rule 21 motion".

Further Appellate Options

Appeals from interlocutory writ of mandamus rulings made by a panel of a U.S. Court of Appeals are a fairly esoteric corner of federal appellate procedure, and I am not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of it, but there is a process by which someone with standing could seek further appellate review of the U.S. Court of Appeals panel's ruling.

The interlocutory appeal in this case was handled by a three judge panel of one of the United States Courts of Appeal.

There are two main ways that a ruling of a panel of one of the United States Courts of Appeal may be further appealed. One is to seek en banc review of the decision by all of the judges of the circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals whose panel heard the case. The other is to appeal either from an en banc decision or directly from the panel decision, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In both circumstances, further appellate review of discretionary, the en banc panel or the U.S. Supreme Court, as the case may be, first decides the preliminary question of whether to consider the further appeal at all, and then, if that is answered in the affirmative, considers the merits of the issue or the issues raised in a further appeal.

In a case of national interest involving separation of powers in which the panel issued a divided ruling, it isn't unthinkable that there would be further discretionary review of the ruling if it was sought by someone with standing to do so.

The most controversial aspect of the panel ruling in this case, highlighted by the dissenting opinion, is that the Justice Department and criminal defense attorney filed the writ of mandamus before the trial court judge had a chance to consider and rule upon the motions filed in the trial court.

Normally, a writ of mandamus is not considered "ripe" to file until a judge actually rules on a motion with a court order which the person seeking the writ alleges was mistaken, rather than before the judge gets to consider whether or not to grant that motion in the first instance as was done in this case. To paraphrase the dissenting opinion, the dissenting judge felt that the appellate court panel jumped the gun in an unprecedented and irregular manner that deprived it of jurisdiction to decide the issue because it was not yet ripe for decision.

Other Ways This Could Have Been Litigated

As an aside, it is also worth observing that there were multiple procedural options available in this case to prevent his client from being sentenced and to force the case to be dismissed.

The writ of mandamus was brought by the Justice Department seeking to enforce its own institutional privileges.

But, the more conventional approach in a case with a similar fact pattern in federal court, would be for the criminal defense attorney to file a separate lawsuit against the warden of the jail where his client is being held (who is also a nominal defendant under a different legal fiction, and who also has absolute immunity, but would be defended in the lawsuit by the Justice Department absent an alleged conflict of interest like the one present in this case) seeking a writ of habeas corpus ordering the warden to release his client, possibly before a different judge, and subject to direct appeal once resolved, rather than an interlocutory appeal via a writ of mandamus.

But, it isn't often that the Justice Department seeks to withdraw its prosecution against a criminal defendant who has already pleaded guilty in a proceeding in which the factual basis of the plea has already been established on the record in open court and the case is ripe for sentencing to a serious felony sentence.

Update As Of August 3, 2020

This case was selected for en banc review by the entire DC Circuit based upon the petition of the dissenting judge in the three judge panel that decided the case. The Order states:


Upon consideration of the petition for rehearing en banc, the responses thereto, and the vote in favor of rehearing en banc by a majority of the judges eligible to participate, it is

ORDERED that this case be reheard by the court sitting en banc. It is

FURTHER ORDERED that the court’s order filed June 24, 2020, be vacated. It is

FURTHER ORDERED that oral argument before the en banc court be heard at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. The parties should be prepared to address whether there are “no other adequate means to attain the relief” desired. Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Court for D.C., 542 U.S. 367, 380 (2004).

A separate order will issue regarding the allocation of oral argument time.

Per Curiam

  • Are you sure the decision to review was "based upon the petition of the dissenting judge in the three judge panel..."? The article you link says it was based on "Sullivan’s request for rehearing..." And Sullivan filed a "Petition for Rehearing..." assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6986026/…
    – Just a guy
    Aug 4, 2020 at 6:04
  • I was so mad when Obama ordered the justice department to not prosecute the massive, systemic financial fraud of 2008. If we only knew then that judges have the power to direct random attorneys to represent the American people we could have had justice. Maybe there’s still time!
    – Oliver
    Aug 5, 2020 at 6:08

can this Judge appeal to the Supreme Court (or appeal again starting from a different court jurisdiction) to potentially allow him to continue his decision to review if the Michael Flynn case should be dismissed?

No. The judge is not a party to this case. Only the parties are allowed to file an appeal in an upper court.

The judge has no option but to follow the decision(s) from upper court(s). The fact that the judge appointed an attorney is irrelevant and cannot overcome the parties' agreement to dismiss the case.

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    The decision describes Judge Sullivan as "respondent." Does that not imply that he is party to the action?
    – phoog
    Jun 24, 2020 at 20:44
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    @phoog: Well, it's In re Flynn, not Flynn v. Sullivan. It's a little confusing. As I understand it, the government moved to dismiss the case, Sullivan refused to immediately grant the motion, and Flynn petitioned for a writ of mandamus to order Sullivan to grant the motion. Sullivan was allowed to present arguments opposing the petition. But I don't know whether that extends to appealing the decision. Jun 24, 2020 at 21:38
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    @phoog I was unaware that the issue involved a writ of mandamus (thanks for posting a link to the decision). But, inline with Nate Eldredge's comment, the excerpt in the OP's question refers to the case to which prosecutor and Flynn are the parties. The petition for writ stemmed from the judge's usurpation of prosecutor's role, usurpation which does not render that judge a party to the underlying case. Although futile as moot, the most that this judge could appeal is the decision regarding his appointment of amicus, but not the appellate granting of the motion to dismiss the underlying case. Jun 24, 2020 at 22:43
  • @phoog See my answer explaining at length the point you make in your comment.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 24, 2020 at 23:04

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