Tanya Chutkan: Who is the judge overseeing Trump’s federal 2020 election probe case?

DC district judge has already sentenced at least 38 people convicted of Capitol riot-related crimes

Faiza Saqib
Friday 15 September 2023 16:10 BST
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Former president Donald Trump was hit with his third criminal indictment on 1 August, this one charging him over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the subsequent January 6 attack on the US Capitol Building.

Following an investigation by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, a grand jury in Washington, DC has charged Mr Trump on four counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy against rights and obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding.

The DC district judge assigned to oversee the case is Tanya Chutkan, a court docket revealed prior to Mr Trump’s arraignment on 3 August, at which he entered a not-guilty plea to all charges.

Judge Chutkan is an appointee of former president Barack Obama and was first appointed to the US District Court for the District of Columbia in June 2014.

Here’s everything you need to know about the judge assigned to Mr Trump’s case:

Who is Judge Tanya Chutkan?

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Judge Chutkan received her BA in Economics from George Washington University and her Juris Doctor (JD) from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was an associate editor of its Law Review and a legal writing fellow, according to her DC District Court biography.

Judge Chutkan has been assigned to the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump
Judge Chutkan has been assigned to the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump (AP)

After law school, Judge Chutkan worked in private practice for three years, before joining the District of Columbia Public Defender Service (PDS), where she worked as a trial attorney and supervisor.

According to her biography, during Judge Chutkan’s time working at the PDS, she argued “several appellate cases and tried over 30 cases, including numerous serious felony matters”.

Eleven years later, Judge Chutkan left the PDS and joined the private law firm Boies, Schiller, & Flexner LLP, where she worked for 12 years and specialised in white-collar criminal defence.

As a district judge, she has become known as one of the toughest judges in the prosecution of the Capitol rioters.

One case that caught everyone’s attention was that of an Ohio couple, Brandon and Stephanie Miller, who climbed through a broken window of the US Capitol and live-streamed a video of themselves inside the building.

At the time, the prosecutor asked the Department of Justice (DoJ) to sentence them to home confinement as a part of a 36-month probationary period.

Judge Chutkan disagreed with the prosecution’s request and instead sentenced Mr Miller to 20 days in jail and Ms Miller to 14 days in December 2021.

At the time, Judge Chutkan said: “They didn’t just walk through a door. They climbed through a broken window… they knew full well of the violence that had preceded their entry.

“The fact is that they were part of a mob… that was intent on stopping the lawful transfer of power.”

Rioters loyal to Donald Trump rally at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021
Rioters loyal to Donald Trump rally at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021 (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

She has sentenced dozens of people convicted of Capitol riot-related crimes – and has handed down harsh punishments in these cases.

Matt Mazzocco – a Texas mortgage broker who posed for a selfie in front of rioters breaching the building – was sentenced to 45 days in jail by Judge Chutkan with an additional 60 hours of community service in October 2021.

Prosecutors had initially recommended three months under home confinement and probation but Judge Chutkan described the recommended sentence as too lenient.

“If Mr Mazzocco walks away with probation and a slap on the wrist, that’s not going to deter anyone trying what he did again. It does not, in this court’s opinion, indicate the severity – the gravity of the offences that he committed on January 6,” she said.

Security ramped up around Trump case

In recent developments, security for the federal judge has now been increased at the courthouse in Washington DC.

According to a CNN report, on 7 August, deputy US Marshals spoke of security plans for the judge. Security at the DC District Court is handled by the US Marshals Service and a spokesman for the service said it “take(s) that responsibility very seriously”.

Drew J Wade told CNN: “Ensuring that judges can rule independently and free from harm or intimidation is paramount to the rule of law, and a fundamental mission of the USMS. While we do not discuss our specific security measures, we continuously review the measures in place and take appropriate steps to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.”

Judge Tanya Chutkan, former President Donald Trump and Special Counsel Jack Smith
Judge Tanya Chutkan, former President Donald Trump and Special Counsel Jack Smith (United States District Court)

The increase in security measures inside the courthouse comes after fencing and yellow tape were removed following Mr Trump’s arraignment.

Mr Trump has also called for Judge Chutkan to be removed from the case after she issued a ruling against him.

A day after appearing in court to plead not guilty, the ex-president took to the social media site, Truth Social and said: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”

The threat was not taken lightly as Mr Smith’s team cited that post in a request for Judge Chutkan to issue a protective order that would limit what discovery evidence Mr Trump and his legal team can share publicly.

Mr Trump took to Truth Social again and said: “THERE IS NO WAY I CAN GET A FAIR TRIAL WITH THE JUDGE ‘ASSIGNED’ TO THE RIDICULOUS FREEDOM OF SPEECH/FAIR ELECTIONS CASE. EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS, AND SO DOES SHE!”

“WE WILL BE IMMEDIATELY ASKING FOR RECUSAL OF THIS JUDGE ON VERY POWERFUL GROUNDS, AND LIKEWISE FOR VENUE CHANGE, OUT IF (sic) D.C.,” Mr Trump wrote.

And so, prosecutors asked for a protective order restricting what Mr Trump and his team can do with evidence shared with them. “All the proposed order seeks to prevent is the improper dissemination or use of discovery materials, including to the public,” prosecutors wrote in the protective order request.

“Such a restriction is particularly important in this case because the defendant has previously issued public statements on social media regarding witnesses, judges, attorneys, and others associated with legal matters pending against him,” it continued.

In a legal filing on 14 September, the office of Special Counsel Jack Smith argued in a motion that there’s “no valid basis” for Judge Chutkan to recuse herself after Mr Trump’s legal team claimed that she should leave the case because of statements she made when sentencing January 6 rioters.

The lawyers for the former president wrote that Judge Chutkan “agreed with portions” of a sentencing memo for one of the January 6 defendants which “wrongly placed blame on President Trump and complained that he had not been charged”.

The Trump lawyers added that “although Judge Chutkan correctly noted that she does not have any influence on charging decisions, her ... comments stating ‘you have made a very good point . . . that the people who exhorted you and encouraged you and rallied you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged’ ... reflect her apparent opinion that President Trump’s conduct ... occurred, and supports charges”.

The special counsel said that Mr Trump “has failed to identify anything approaching the clear and convincing evidence necessary to overcome the presumption of impartiality”.

The office argued that Mr Trump was using “suggestion and innuendo to insinuate something sinister in the Court simply doing its job by addressing sentencing arguments”.

Trump’s prior dealings with Judge Chutkan

Judge Chutkan has also had previous dealings with Mr Trump.

In November 2021, Mr Trump filed a lawsuit in the hopes of blocking the National Archives from handing over documents related to the failed insurrection to the House select committee investigating the events of that day.

Judge Chutkan rejected Mr Trump’s request and said: “While broad, these requests, and each of the other requests made by the committee, do not exceed the committee’s legislative powers.”

She said that Mr Trump had not acknowledged “the deference owed to” President Joe Biden’s determination that the committee could access the materials.

Donald Trump gives his fateful speech on 6 January 2021
Donald Trump gives his fateful speech on 6 January 2021 (AP)

“[Mr Trump’s] position that he may override the express will of the executive branch appears to be premised on the notion that his executive power ‘exists in perpetuity,’” Judge Chutkan said.

“But presidents are not kings, and the plaintiff is not president,” she added.

Judge Chutkan is one of two dozen judges in DC who have collectively sentenced almost 600 defendants so far for their roles in the assault on democracy.

Now, she will face Mr Trump and his attorneys in court for the first trial date which is set for 4 March 2024.

Ariana Baio and Gustaf Kilander contributed to this report. Additonal reporting from agencies.

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