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Criminal Justice

Judge in Trump’s Jan. 6 Trial Is No Stranger to Tackling Tough Cases

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan has presided over several insurrection cases and handed down prison sentences.

Television crews park outside the federal court building in Washington on Tuesday, where U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan will preside over a case involving former President Donald Trump's alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

The judge presiding over the case in which former President Donald Trump has been criminally charged in his alleged efforts to block the results of the 2020 presidential election doesn’t shy away from challenges. 

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan is no stranger when it comes to handing down tough sentences related to the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Prior to being assigned to Trump’s case this week, she presided over and sentenced 38 of the hundreds of people convicted for their participation in the attack that injured several law enforcement and led to the deaths of five. She handed down sentences that ranged from 10 days to over five years, according to an Associated Press analysis of court records.

But she’s also been an inspiration to other women of color in the judiciary and developed a “thick skin” as she rose through the ranks.

Chutkan, 61, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. She immigrated to the United States to attend college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and earned her law degree at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Last year, during an event hosted by the judiciary’s Defender Services Office, an organization dedicated to helping lawyers in the field, she shared some of her experiences throughout. 

When facing virulent criticism because of her identity, Chutkan said it had been difficult not to be distracted. 

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. (Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts via the Associated Press)

“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.”

She said she drew her strength from “the dignity and the brilliance” of federal Judge Constance Baker Motley and the many women lawyers who came before her. 

“They put their lives on the line every time they did their jobs and had to put up with far more than I have,” she recalled at the time.

A majority of Chutkan’s three-decade career was in civil and criminal litigation within federal and local courts in Washington.

From 1991 to 2002 she served as a public defender for young people and adults, specializing in homicides, sex crimes, and domestic violence cases. Afterward she joined Boies, Schiller, & Flexner LLP, where she practiced civil litigation with a concentration of class action antitrust cases until she was recommended in 2013 by U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton to join the federal bench. 

“Tanya Chutkan’s broad criminal and civil legal experience and professional reputation stood out among the many exceptionally well-qualified candidates. She will be a very able addition to our distinguished bench,” said Norton at the time.

Former President Barack Obama’s nomination and the Senate confirmation of Chutkan in 2014 made her the third Black woman appointed as a federal district judge in Washington. Chutka’s appointment to the federal court bench follows in the footsteps of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who Norton also recommended. Jackson is now the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Chutkan’s career inspired the career of Valecia Battle, an attorney at Chutkan’s previous law firm.

“When I decided to go to law school, I looked for Black women lawyers who exemplified the excellence I knew I wanted to bring to my own career,” Battle told Capital B in an email statement.

Read more: Alvin Bragg Isn’t the Only Black Prosecutor Taking on Trump

She came across an article featuring Chutkan, “who was clearly a brilliant, talented attorney,” said Battle, who secured an externship in Chutkan’s chambers in 2016. 

“As a judge, she maintains composure within the courtroom — even in hotly contested cases — and she consistently steps back, reviews the facts and law before her, and provides correct assessments,” said Battle.

‘Presidents are not kings’

Chutkan joins a growing list of people of color in the judicial system who are at the forefront of a much wider effort to demonstrate that Trump — whose tenure as president was bound up with corrosive white identity politics — isn’t above the law.

This isn’t the first time Chutkan has dealt with Trump. Months after the riot at the Capitol, Chutkan rejected the former president’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 attack, according to the New York Times. 

She delivered “a swift and sharp rebuke” about the limits of his ability as a former president to invoke executive privilege.

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

It is not clear when Chutkan will face Trump. But he is set to be arraigned Thursday for an initial court appearance, where he’ll likely enter a plea of not guilty.

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