Scooter’s First Day in Court

On the scene at Libby’s not-guilty plea.

Libby limps to his day in court

To find Scooter Libby in White House photos you usually have to search behind the famous people for his mild-mannered face. Libby has succeeded in Washington by working invisibly behind the scenes. At his arraignment this morning, Libby was in the center of the camera lens. Photographers backpedaled and jostled to capture him walking into the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. He entered a side door, but the vice president’s former chief of staff, who spent so much time with Cheney ducking into undisclosed locations—rode the public elevator like everyone else. He exchanged pleasantries with a reporter also going to the sixth-floor courtroom.

Libby milled by the witness table, in the nervous way defendants do, before the judge arrived. Everyone was watching him: the reporters who had been trading rumors as they waited in the hallway, law students interning in other courtrooms, and even lawyers trying cases a floor below. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated with judges from the past, in oil paintings stacked three rows high, looking down from the vast walls? They included one familiar face: Watergate Judge John Sirica, who forced Nixon to hand over his secret tape recordings.

Today’s U.S. district judge, Reggie Walton, waited for Libby, who recently injured his foot, to hobble to the microphone before reading the charges against him. Libby’s wife sat behind the legal team. Her long black coat and gray scarf added a slight funereal air. Her husband leaned his aluminum crutches against the podium and listened as the judge read the charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. When asked how he would plead, Libby responded while seeming to button his coat: “With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty.”

It was probably the first time many of the reporters packing the six rows behind Libby had ever heard him speak. The clerk pronounced his name “Lie-by,” proving he has not yet become a household name.

The lawyers spoke to the judge briefly and efficiently about the timetable for the case. Libby’s team will have to get security clearances. Fitzgerald has built a case out of highly classified materials. That vetting might take a month. Fitzgerald said it would take him two weeks to put on his case. Libby’s lawyer suggested there might be some First Amendment challenges that would delay the case, presumably from reporters who are likely to be called as witnesses.

Libby’s friends and colleagues in the administration said they were encouraged that he has finally upgraded his legal team. For months, Libby was represented by a lawyer who didn’t specialize in criminal defense. Now he has two well-known criminal trial lawyers, Ted Wells and William Jeffress. Wells won acquittals for former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan. (Donovan famously asked after his acquittal: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”) Jeffress is from the firm Baker Botts, where Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James A. Baker is a senior partner. Jeffress has won acquittals for public officials accused of extortion, perjury, money laundering, and vote-buying.

The lawyers are two quite different characters. Wells, an African-American, smiled and draped his hand on Libby’s shoulder as they talked. Later he greeted court workers with the same drapes and handshakes, as if they’d been college roommates. Jeffress was reserved. When reporters surrounded him later, he looked like he’d eaten a lemon. One crank harangued him about government lies until Jeffress turned to a U.S. marshal. “Could you get these people out of here?” he said, referring to us. “We’re waiting for our client.” We were moved outside.

Libby didn’t speak to reporters either. But he did notice CNN’s John King standing at the rail of the spectator’s section as he made his way to the marshals’ office “for processing.” As he leaned on his crutches, Libby gave King a wink.