Trump’s new Jan. 6 case judge might be good for him. Here’s why

The federal judge assigned to oversee the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump is known for for imposing stiff sentences on pro-Trump rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan once described the “very real danger that the Jan. 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy.”

And Chutkan has ruled against Trump before, denying his 2021 motion to assert executive privilege in order to block the release of documents to the House special Jan. 6 committee investigating the insurrection. “Presidents are not kings,” she held in that case, “and Plaintiff is not president.”

Veteran federal court watchers describe Chutkan as a consummate professional who will handle a sensitive case with the utmost care. Given her background, some told USA TODAY, Chutkan is likely to do what is within her power to protect the former president’s rights as a criminal defendant. Trump stands accused of conspiring with others to illegally overthrow the 2020 election, a charge that could mean a lengthy prison sentence if he is convicted.

“Judge Chutkan, she’s got some criminal defense in her background. She is a judge who is perceived as being exceedingly fair to criminal defendants,” said Joyce White Vance, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Vance also served on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-chaired its Criminal Practice Subcommittee during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Vance noted that when Obama appointed Chutkan to the federal bench in 2014, it was during a time of fierce battles between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate over the judicial confirmation process. 

“Yet she was confirmed 95 to zero at a time when a number of extraordinarily well-qualified nominees couldn’t even get blue slips returned, let alone get a vote,” Vance said, referring to rejection notices by senators. “So any Republican senator who now turns around and criticizes her is doing it for purely political reasons. She’s just a good federal judge, regardless of who appointed her.”

John Dean, the Watergate-era White House counsel turned judicial responsibility advocate, described Chutkan as “solid, fair, and always professional.”

“Her background as a public defender probably favors Trump in some regards,” Dean told USA TODAY. But he added, “She knows the criminal law and has a low tolerance for criminal behavior, which will not help Trump if he is found guilty.”

Judge, public defender and high-priced criminal defense lawyer

Chutkan was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in June 2014, according to her biography on the federal court’s website.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she received her B.A. in Economics from George Washington University and her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After three years in private practice, Chutkan joined the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, working as a trial attorney and supervisor. She gained familiarity there with the workings of the courtroom, trying more than 30 cases − including numerous serious felony matters − and arguing several appellate cases.

Eleven years later, she joined the blue-chip law firm of Boies, Schiller, & Flexner LLP, where she specialized in litigation and white collar criminal defense. She spent 12 years there, defending clients in antitrust class action plaintiffs as well as individual and corporate defendants involved in complex state and federal litigation.

‘Absolutely certain punishment’ for Jan. 6 rioters

Chutkan has sentenced at least 38 people convicted of Capitol riot-related crimes, giving them prison terms ranging from 10 days to more than five years, according to an Associated Press analysis of court records.

She’s also one of two dozen judges in Washington, D.C., who collectively have sentenced nearly 600 defendants for their roles in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, which came after Trump gave a fiery speech in which he urged his supporters to protest what he insisted, falsely, was an election he had stolen out from under him. “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump told them.

More than one third of the defendants avoided sentences that included incarceration. According to the AP analysis, other judges typically have handed down sentences that are more lenient than those requested by prosecutors. Chutkan, however, has matched or exceeded prosecutors’ recommendations in 19 of her 38 sentences, the AP said. In four of those cases, prosecutors weren’t seeking any jail time at all.

Chutkan, the AP noted, has said prison can be a powerful deterrent against the threat of another insurrection. It cited one case that, at the time, was the longest for a Jan. 6 case to date.

“Every day we’re hearing about reports of anti-democratic factions of people plotting violence, the potential threat of violence, in 2024,” she said in December 2021 before sentencing a Florida man charged with attacking police officers to more than five years behind bars.

“It has to be made clear,” Chutkan said, “that trying to violently overthrow the government, trying to stop the peaceful transition of power and assaulting law enforcement officers in that effort is going to be met with absolutely certain punishment.”

Keeping trials on track, no patience for legal tricks

Dean, the former White House counsel under Nixon, said judges can have tremendous sway over trial proceedings if they really want to. He cited the case of Watergate judge John Sirica, who he said was “hell bent on nailing [Nixon] and went out of his way to do so, including the unprecedented release of secret grand jury information to Congress to build an impeachment case.”

A grand jury subpoena for Nixon’s secret recordings would force Nixon to resign, Dean said.

But Dean and other veteran legal experts said that federal rules of judicial procedure sharply limit what a judge can − and cannot do − to try to influence a case.

During the pre-trial phase, especially on complex cases like Trump’s is certain to be, federal judges such as Chutkan can help ensure that neither the prosecution nor defense team tries to sabotage the case or stall for time.

In this case, as in his federal case on charges of hoarding classified documents, Trump is likely to argue that the trial should be moved until after the 2024 election in order to not hurt his political chances of winning a second term, according to Vance and other former federal prosecutors interviewed by USA TODAY.  

Ty Cobb, Trump’s own White House special counsel, predicted Trump might even try to have Chutkan disqualified because of her tough stance on Jan. 6 rioters.

“They’ll try to DQ her because she’s not the judge they want, but there’s no basis for that. So I think that goes nowhere,” Cobb said.

Cobb added that given her background, Trump would be smart not to oppose her, because he believes she’ll be as fair to the former president, if not more so, than other judges might be.

Her decades as a public defender and private law firm defense counsel “certainly underscores her familiarity with what a defendant’s rights are, and I’m sure she’ll be careful not to, not to abuse them,” Cobb said.

He also said Special Counsel Jack Smith and his team of prosecutors should consider themselves lucky to have Chutkan too, given her reputation for professionalism.

“I know a lot of people who have litigated against her, both from the public defender’s office and while she was at Boies Schiller, and I don’t have any doubt that she can run a fair trial,” Cobb said. “And I also think she’s a good judge for this because she’s all about business. And she knows how to move things quickly, without distractions, and not let things turn into a circus.”

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