Home U.S. News Judge in Trump Jan. 6 Trial Is Known for Tough Capitol Riot Sentences

Judge in Trump Jan. 6 Trial Is Known for Tough Capitol Riot Sentences

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Judge in Trump Jan. 6 Trial Is Known for Tough Capitol Riot Sentences

When former President Donald J. Trump appears in court before Judge Tanya S. Chutkan on charges of conspiring to subvert American democracy, it will not be the first time she has dealt with high-profile questions related to Mr. Trump’s attempts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

Nearly two years ago, Judge Chutkan rejected Mr. Trump’s efforts to prevent his White House records from being given to the House committee investigating his actions leading up to and during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by his supporters — delivering a swift and sharp rebuke about the limits of his ability as former president to invoke executive privilege.

“Presidents are not kings,” she wrote, “and plaintiff is not president.”

It is not clear when Judge Chutkan, 61, and Mr. Trump will first meet. He is set to appear before a magistrate judge for an initial court appearance on Thursday, where he is likely to be arraigned and enter a plea of not guilty — just as he did in June in a separate case involving his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House.

But she will supervise the trial, where his presence will be required in the Federal District Court in Washington. Its assignment to her raised a contrast to the assignment of the documents case to Judge Aileen M. Cannon in Florida.

Credit…Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, via Associated Press

Where Judge Cannon is a Trump appointee with a conservative background, Judge Chutkan was appointed by President Barack Obama and, before joining the bench, donated money to his campaigns. Where Judge Cannon had been a federal prosecutor, Judge Chutkan had been a public defender.

Where Judge Cannon has scant criminal trial experience, Judge Chutkan is more deeply versed in running trials. She has been a trial judge for nearly a decade. As a judicial nominee in 2014, she wrote that in her prior career, she had tried about 40 to 45 cases to verdict and was a lead defense lawyer in many involving “serious felonies, such as homicide, first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping.”

And where Judge Cannon had previously intervened in the documents investigation in a way favorable to Mr. Trump — only to be overturned by an appeals court — Judge Chutkan ruled against Mr. Trump in the dispute over White House papers with the Jan. 6 committee, an outcome upheld by an appeals court.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Judge Chutkan came to the United States to attend college at George Washington University and obtained her law degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She spent more than a decade serving as a court-appointed lawyer for indigent clients and worked for a time at the white-shoe law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner before joining the federal bench in Washington in 2014.

She is married to Peter A. Krauthamer, a former associate judge of the Superior Court in the District of Columbia, which handles local criminal trials. The two met as public defenders in the District of Columbia, she said at her 2014 confirmation hearing, and have two sons.

At that hearing, she also testified that good judges must be “open-minded, fair and prepared.” Each case, she added, must be treated “individually and on its own merits.”

“Impartiality is bedrock,” she said.

Mr. Trump has a history of attacking judges by seeking to portray them as an “Obama judge” or otherwise biased against him, and Judge Chutkan’s background signals a more liberal-leaning outlook.

In her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, she described her volunteer experience for Democratic candidates, including the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and a lawyers’ group that supported Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

A Federal Election Commission database shows she donated to the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, as well as to the 2008 campaign of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York.

She has also ruled in an arguably liberal-leaning way in several notable cases.

In 2017, she ruled that an American citizen being held in military detention in Iraq as a suspected member of ISIS had a right to a lawyer, over the Trump administration’s objections. She also blocked the administration from preventing undocumented, pregnant teenagers from having access to abortion-related services.

And in 2019, she issued an injunction halting the Trump administration’s plan to resume the death penalty, blocking executions of four federal convicts.

But her involvement in cases related to Jan. 6 is likely to attract the most attention as she takes up what seems destined to be one of the most significant criminal trials in American history. She handled both a lawsuit brought by Mr. Trump seeking to block his White House records from being handed over to the House Jan. 6 committee and several criminal cases brought against rioters in the Capitol attack.

Over the past two years, Judge Chutkan has earned a reputation for handing down tough penalties to people convicted of crimes in the Jan. 6 riot. And while she has avoided the sort of pointed barbs against Mr. Trump that some of her colleagues on the bench have used to describe the former president’s role in the assault, she has not been shy in expressing her disdain for the attack.

The events of Jan. 6 were “an attempt of a violent mob to prevent the orderly and peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next” and their efforts “soiled and defaced the halls of the Capitol,” she said in October 2021 in delivering a harsher sentence to a rioter than what prosecutors had requested.

“The country is watching to see what the consequences are,” she declared, adding, “There have to be consequences.”

As a matter of political reality, it may also prove significant that Judge Chutkan is Black, an immigrant and a woman. Mr. Trump has a history of attacking judges and prosecutors — especially those who are women, members of minority groups or both — in personal terms.

In 2016, Mr. Trump denounced Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a fraud case against Trump University, calling him a “Mexican.” He accused the judge of bias because he wanted to build a wall on the southern border. (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana to parents who had emigrated from Mexico.)

More recently, Mr. Trump went after two Black prosecutors in New York — Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, and Letitia James, the New York State attorney general — who have pursued cases against him. He has also lobbed attacks at Fani T. Willis, a Black district attorney in Georgia who may soon seek his indictment related to his efforts to overturn the election. Among other things, he called all three racists.

A calendar for the trial has not yet been set, but there is reason to doubt that Judge Chutkan will be receptive if Mr. Trump follows his well-established practice of trying to delay court proceedings and run out the clock.

On Wednesday, John Lauro, a lawyer for the former president, suggested on NBC’s “Today” show that trying to take the Jan. 6 case to trial in about three months would be “absurd” and said the defense would need to do its own investigation. Pointing to the time prosecutors have dedicated to the investigation, Mr. Lauro added: “Why don’t we make it equal?”

But Judge Chutkan moved unusually swiftly when she handled the lawsuit Mr. Trump brought seeking to block the release of his White House records. Just 23 days elapsed from when he filed the case and her ruling, in which she emphasized that President Biden did not support his predecessor’s attempt to invoke executive privilege.

That ruling ultimately gave the House committee time to work with the records before it completed its inquiry and issued a final report.

Mr. Trump’s pattern of talking about legal matters outside of court may also test Judge Chutkan’s patience.

In a 2018 case involving Maria Butina, a Russian accused of illegally acting as a covert foreign agent during the 2016 campaign, the judge imposed a sweeping gag order and then chastised Ms. Butina’s defense lawyers for “trying this case in the media.”

At a bond hearing, she scolded a defense lawyer for defying her warning not to publicly discuss evidence in the case. “You have overstepped,” Judge Chutkan told him. “Your comments have crossed the line.”

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