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Judge in Trump trial has a tough sentencing record in Jan. 6 cases

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. Chutkan has been assigned to the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. Chutkan has been assigned to the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump.

It's been called one of the most important criminal cases in American history: The Justice Department's election conspiracy trial against former President Donald Trump will unfold at a courthouse steps away from the U.S. Capitol in Washington where Trump's supporters tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan will occupy a central role — making crucial decisions about a trial date, admissible evidence and Trump's compliance with the rules of his release in the months ahead.

Chutkan, 62, established herself as a force in the courtroom decades ago. She made her name at the Public Defender Service, the elite corps of defense attorneys fighting for low-income people accused of crimes.

"It was as competitive to get a position at PDS as it was to get a position at a major law firm," said retired trial lawyer Michele Roberts, another veteran of the defender service. "People who were committed to doing that work were all eager to work at PDS."

As a defense attorney, Chutkan pressed the Justice Department to meet its burden of proof for homicide and sexual assault prosecutions, handling more than 40 trials. In one of them, she faced off against prosecutor James Boasberg, who's now the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington. Another of her cases became part of the training program for new defenders.

"As far as a trial lawyer, one of the best that's come out of the agency, for sure," said Roberts, who is a former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.

Record as a federal judge

Then-President Obama nominated Chutkan to serve as a federal judge in 2013. The following year, she won confirmation in a 95-0 vote by the Senate.

On the bench, she's handled cases involving an unregistered Russian agentliving in the U.S., efforts to challenge the lethal injection protocol for people on federal death row and rioters who breached the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021.

Chutkan is known for imposing some tough punishments in those cases. According to an analysis from NPR's investigative team, as of July 2023, Chutkan had given prison sentences to all of the 38 Jan. 6 defendants to come before her, even though prosecutors had only recommended 34 of them for prison. That stands in contrast to the other judges in Jan. 6 cases who have tended to be more lenient at sentencing.

Chutkan has handed down tougher prison sentences than the government asked for in nearly 25% of her Jan. 6 cases. That is a notably higher rate than nearly all other judges handling these cases.

"She was definitely on the high end of the range of those people," said Bob Driscoll, a defense attorney at the McGlinchey Stafford firm in Washington. "She was, in fact, still might be the only — if she's not the only she's one of the only — judges that has several times gone above the recommendation made by the government."

Trump now faces four felony charges for trying to overturn the last presidential election and creating an atmosphere that led to violence on Jan. 6. That case landed on Chutkan's docket by random assignment earlier this month.

Former D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine remembered his first reaction.

"So as a friend and someone who I, you know, really look up to, I immediately worried," Racine said.

Racine met the judge 34 years ago, when she was his summer mentor at a law firm and he was still a law student.

"My second reaction was there could not have been a better judge for this matter because Judge Chutkan is an indefatigable worker and she is as fair a person as I've met," said Racine, now at the Hogan Lovells firm in Washington.

"She's very, very quick witted"

Chutkan hails from a high-achieving family. Her mother toured internationally as a dancer. Her father practiced as a prominent physician in Jamaica. Her sister, Robynne, also is a medical doctor.

Natalie Ludaway first met Chutkan at their high school, an elite all-girls institution in Kingston, Jamaica, where Chutkan was born.

They reconnected decades later as attorneys in Washington, over good books and better food, like a curried shrimp dish Ludaway still wants to know how to prepare.

"When you take the robe off and the lights aren't glaring at her, you know, she has many friends and she's a good friend and it's because she's funny," said Ludaway. "She's very, very quick-witted. She has a big laugh and loves a good joke."

Ludaway, chief growth and legal officer at CINQ Care Inc., said the judge has a firm sense of herself — and she's not going to be bullied.

In a speech last year in honor of Black History Month, Judge Chutkan addressed some of the criticism that's come her way over the years.

"For a lot of people, I seem to check a lot of boxes: immigrant, woman, Black, Asian," she said. "Your qualifications are always going to be subject to criticism and you have to develop a thick skin."

Chutkan already has warned lawyers for the former president that his First Amendment rights must yield to restrictions that bar him from threatening potential witnesses. But crafting a punishment for Trump, who's running for office again, will be tough.

"We all understand, I mean, most of us in normal cases, that the judge has all the control and for 99.9% of us an admonition from the court is just kind of followed per se," said Driscoll. "I think in this case, the key question for her is going to be, or what?"

Since Trump began making disparaging social media posts about the judge, a Texas woman has been charged with threatening Chutkan. Security officials are on heightened alert.

But Ludaway said her friend is going about her business, including her exercise routine.

"I hope that the Marshals who are with her are in tip-top shape because I know she's still running," Ludaway said.

The judge will make her first big decision in the Trump case on Monday, when she says she will set a trial date.

Prosecutors say they'll be ready this January 2024, but Trump wants to wait until 2026. Six lawyers interviewed for this story said they are confident the trial will happen next year, before the presidential election.

NPR's Nick McMillan and Barbara Van Woerkom contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.