U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, an Obama-nominated judge with a history of ruling on former President Trump and Jan. 6-related cases, has been initially assigned to Trump’s criminal case in Washington, D.C.
Trump, whose Tuesday indictment on charges stemming from his efforts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election marks his third time being indicted this year, will make his first court appearance in the case Thursday.
Democrats are calling the latest indictment the “most serious and most consequential thus far,” and if Chutkan’s history is any indication of how she could rule in the case, the result could be just as consequential as the charges themselves.
Chutkan’s harsh view of punishment for Jan. 6 defendants
Judges in Jan. 6 cases have issued varying levels of sentences, and on the harsher side of the scale, one stands out.
Chutkan has often handed out punishments that are harsher than what the Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended.
In one case involving Brandon and Stephanie Miller, a couple involved in the Jan. 6 riot, prosecutors asked the DOJ to sentence them to home confinement as part of a 36-month probationary period.
But Chutkan went much further, sentencing Brandon Miller to 20 days in jail and Stephanie Miller to 14 days in jail in December 2021.
Chutkan’s approach runs counter to what other judges have done.
In the Jan. 6 cases Chutkan has presided over, she has sentenced at least 38 people convicted of Capitol riot crimes. All 38 were given jail time, according to The Associated Press.
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Collectively, two dozen judges, including Chutkan, have sentenced nearly 600 defendants for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, but more often than not, the judges have issued more lenient punishments than what prosecutors recommended.
Of note, more than one-third of convicted defendants avoided prison time, according to The AP.
But Chutkan has either matched or exceeded what prosecutors wanted — and in four of the cases, prosecutors weren’t seeking jail time.
What this means for Trump’s case remains to be seen and is entirely dependent on what the jury decides, but the importance of her history with Jan. 6 cases cannot be understated.
A stark and public disagreement with fellow judges
Chutkan has made it clear she believes jail time can be a powerful deterrent from another insurrection.
Prior to sentencing a Florida man in December 2021 for attacking police officers to five years in prison — at the time the longest sentencing for a Jan. 6 defendant — Chutkan said a powerful message has to be sent when “every day we’re hearing about reports of anti-democratic factions of people plotting violence, the potential threat of violence, in 2024.”
“It has to be made clear 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,” Chutkan said.
Among the judges that have handed out lighter sentences is Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee who said the DOJ was being too harsh on Jan. 6 defendants compared to the people arrested during protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s death.
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While sentencing Danielle Doyle in October 2021 for entering the Capitol on Jan. 6 with other rioters, McFadden questioned why prosecutors hadn’t brought more cases for people accused of looting and vandalism in the wake of Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020.
The vandalism and looting resulted in more than $1 billion in damages nationwide.
“I think the U.S. attorney would have more credibility if it was even-handed in its concern about riots and mobs in this city,” McFadden said.
Prosecutors recommended two months of home confinement, but McFadden rejected this and sentenced Doyle to probation.
Chutkan responded to McFadden’s assertion about the level of punishment, heavily criticizing his comparison of Jan. 6 rioters to the actions of racial injustice protesters.
“People gathered all over the country last year to protest the violent murder by the police of an unarmed man. Some of those protesters became violent,” Chutkan said during an October 2021 hearing.
“But to compare the actions of people protesting, mostly peacefully, for civil rights, to those of a violent mob seeking to overthrow the lawfully elected government is a false equivalency and ignores a very real danger that the Jan. 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy,” she continued.
Chutkan’s history with Trump, liberal background
Chutkan’s history with Trump is also important ahead of the trial.
Trump filed a lawsuit in November 2021 that sought to block the National Archives from handing over documents related to the events of Jan. 6 to the House select committee investigating the attack.
In her ruling, Chutkan denied Trump’s request on the grounds that President Biden was best suited to decide on matters of executive privilege.
It’s clear that Trump did not luck out with Chutkan as the judge, but she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate 95-0, despite her liberal background.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was one of the many Republican senators that joined Democrats in confirming former President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, but he sharply criticized Chutkan following the announcement that she would oversee Trump’s case.
“So in terms of the judge, we can anticipate a judge who is going to be relentlessly hostile to Donald Trump, who is going to bend over backwards for the Biden [Department of Justice] and who is going to make ruling after ruling after ruling against Trump,” Cruz said.
Chutkan’s wealth of experience
Prior to being nominated by Obama, Chutkan practiced privately for three years before joining the District of Columbia Public Defender Service (PDS), according to her official bio.
At PDS, she tried more than 38 cases, including “several serious felony matters”
Eleven years later, she specialized in litigation and white-collar criminal defense at Boies, Schiller, & Flexner LLP, spending 12 years at the firm.
In addition to her work as a judge, Chutkan was a member of the Steering Committee for the Criminal Law and Individual Rights Section of the District of Columbia Bar from 1996-2000. She has also served as a faculty member at the Harvard Law School Trial Advocacy Workshop.
Chutkan is a child of immigrants
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she graduated from George Washington University with a B.A. in Economics.
She earned her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was also an associate editor of the Law Review and a Legal Writing Fellow.
Chutkan’s husband is Peter A. Krauthamer, a former associate judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
Krauthamer was appointed by Obama in 2011.
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