Updated September 27, 2023 at 6:11 p.m. EDT|Published September 27, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“Donald Trump’s lawyer stood in court in late August before Judge Tanya S. Chutkan and said he planned to challenge the case against the former president as a politically motivated violation of the First Amendment that would be decided by residents of a hopelessly biased city.
“I can’t wait,” Chutkan responded dryly.
Trump’s lawyers soon put Chutkan on their list of complaints, arguing that the judge should recuse herself because her comments in past cases involving the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot made it impossible for her to give him a fair trial. Chutkan denied that motion Wednesday, although Trump could ask an appellate court to weigh in. Assuming that fails, as legal experts predict it will, Chutkan will preside over the first criminal trial of a former president in U.S. history, in the middle of a presidential race in which the defendant is the leading Republican contender and tied in polls with the Democratic incumbent he is accused of illegally trying to keep out of power.
Chutkan, 61, will try Trump in the same courthouse where she became a U.S. citizen after emigrating from Jamaica, where she became a federal judge, where she blocked his administration on death penalty and abortion policies, and where she ordered that his records be given to lawmakers investigating the U.S. Capitol riot. To the trial she brings an entire career of experience, first as a public defender, then as a high-powered private attorney, and finally as a federal judge who has handled dozens of Jan. 6 cases over nearly three years and developed a reputation for being more punitive than her peers.
She is one of only two D.C. judges to give every convicted rioter before them some time behind bars. And she is three times as likely as others to grant or exceed prosecutors’ recommendations, according to Washington Post data, often noting that Jan. 6 defendants benefited from advantages other criminals lack.
When Trump’s attorneys, who declined to comment for this story, claimed they needed two years to prepare for trial because of the millions of pages of evidence, Chutkan pushed back. She said she knew from her law firm days that they would never actually read every document, and from her public defender experience that murder cases are regularly tried under far more difficult circumstances.
“Mr. Trump will be treated exactly, with no more or less deference, than any other defendant would be treated,” she told his attorneys in August.
Ever since Chutkan was assigned to the case, she has been the target of threats by the public. And Trump has been attacking her on social media, calling her “highly partisan” and “unfair.”
“I don’t think he has a chance in hell of getting a different judge,” said John Osgood, who represented one of the Jan. 6 rioters, a Kansas City man whom Chutkan gave four months in jail on a misdemeanor charge. Osgood, a Trump voter twice over, said that while he disagreed with her sentence, Chutkan was, “procedurally, quite reasonable.”
He predicted similar treatment for Trump. “I think she will give him a fair trial,” Osgood said. “If he’s convicted, she will be harsh with him at sentencing.”
“There’s a lot of problems with the justice system in this country, but I can tell you, and I’m telling you this as an immigrant, I don’t know any place that does it better,” Chutkan told one Jan. 6 riot participant.
Chutkan, who declined to comment for this story, was born in Kingston to parents of African and Indian heritage. They raised their children with a strong commitment to education, her sister Robynne Chutkan said in an interview. It was a boarding school scholarship that took their father, the son of indentured servants, from harvesting sugar cane to performing orthopedic surgery. Robynne and her brother are both doctors; their mother, formerly an English professor, went to law school a year after her daughter. The future judge went to a rigorous all-girls school in Kingston before getting a degree in economics at George Washington University in 1983 and a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987.
For a time, Tanya Chutkan tried for a career in dance; her mother was a performer with the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, which combines modern and ballet with Afro-Caribbean traditions. (Her mother was also a competitive player of bridge, squash and tennis.) She said at her investiture in 2015 that she chose GWU because it was still accepting applications when she made up her mind not to pursue science or medicine like her siblings and father.
“I have loved Washington from the time I arrived here as a 17-year-old,” she added. “And it has been my home ever since with a brief detour for law school.”
In Jan. 6 cases, she has repeatedly defended the city often derided — including by Trump — as a “swamp.” She even corrected one rioter who mentioned in his allocution that D.C. was built on swampland.
“You know, that’s actually a myth,” she said. “It is very hot and very humid, but it was not a swamp.”
With their multicultural upbringing and all-girls education, she and her sister were able to grow up free of negative stereotypes tied to their race and gender, Robynne Chutkan said.
“When you walk into a situation feeling like, because I’m a woman or because I’m a person of color, people are going to think x or y of me — we didn’t have that,” she said.
But in her senior year at GWU, Chutkan did write an op-ed for the school newspaper sharing her frustrations with how those prejudices persisted on campus. “Not all of us are radio-carrying, lazy individuals with ‘natural’ rhythm,” she wrote. “(In fact, to my delight, I have encountered several non-black students here who exhibit a fair amount of ‘rhythm!’) A great many of us are socially and politically aware, articulate and fed up with an administration that flagrantly disregards the rights and opinions of minorities.”
Classmates remember her as serious and impressive even four decades ago, unafraid to jump in and answer questions other students tried to avoid.
In their final year of law school, Chutkan and Robert Valihura Jr., now a Delaware attorney, were legal writing fellows, paid to help younger students with legal writing. She was also an associate editor of the law review at Penn. “She has the right temperament, the right skill set,” Valihura said.
After law school, Chutkan worked for four years as a law firm associate before leaving to become a public defender. It was a decision that cut her pay in half, she later said.
Chutkan spent 11 years as a public defender in D.C., including several as the office’s lead homicide attorney. Former colleagues say she was exhaustive in her research and preparation, coming into court knowing the evidence better than the police and prosecutors who collected it. Even when her clients were convicted, she often had laid the groundwork for successful appeals.
Karl A. Racine, a former D.C. public defender who stepped down as D.C.’s attorney general this year, said Chutkan was able to see a case from all vantage points, identifying holes in evidence the government missed. “Tanya has natural talent, and she works harder than other people,” he said.
“She was very even-keeled — cool, calm, collected. If she had a murder trial, she just did it and she won it,” said Edward Ungvarsky, a veteran of the public defender’s office who is now in private practice. On one case they worked together, they had told a defendant to show up for his jury trial dressed for church.
He appeared in a bright yellow suit and snakeskin shoes. Ungvarsky was nervous; Chutkan was not.
“She just looks at him and says, ‘Well, that’s him,’” Ungvarsky recalled. Before the jury could weigh in, the prosecutor moved to drop the charges.
She was particularly good at making the right objections and arguments to lay the groundwork for having a ruling overturned, said Sandra Levick, a veteran of the office who focused on appeals. Levick handled three appeals of cases Chutkan tried and got the rulings overturned each time. “She had an unerring sense for justice and for what the law required,” Levick said.
Chutkan has said she went back to private practice in 2002 because, with two young children, it was hard to spend so much time in trial and at the D.C. jail. She was weeks into her job at Boies Schiller Flexner when she was tapped to handle the opening statement and the first witness in a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit accusing a Japanese company of conspiring to fix supplement prices.
David Boies, the lead attorney on that case, said he thought having a female attorney handle the opening would impress a jury that happened to be mostly female. “At that point you had far fewer women trial lawyers doing really big cases than you do today,” Boies said. Chutkan was “just thrown into … one of the larger antitrust trials of that era, and a case that had been going on for several years at that point.” They won a $148 million ruling.
Chutkan overlapped at the firm with Hunter Biden, who was “of counsel” from 2010 to 2014, something Trump and other Republicans have flagged to accuse Chutkan of bias.
But a spokeswoman for the firm said Chutkan and President Biden’s son — who was indicted this month on gun charges after a deal to plead guilty to tax misdemeanors in Delaware fell apart — never worked on any of the same cases; people at the firm, including Boies, say they probably never met.
Federal Election Commission records show that over the past two decades, Chutkan donated to Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns — $2,273 to his 2008 campaign for president and $1,000 for his 2012 reelection campaign — and to Kirsten Gillibrand, a former Boies Schiller partner who is now a Democratic senator from New York. In 2012, she volunteered for a group called Lawyers for Obama, making calls for campaign events. Chutkan’s ex-husband, Peter A. Krauthamer, whom she met in the public defender’s office, was appointed by Obama in 2011 to D.C. Superior Court, the District’s local court, where he served until retiring in June.
Chutkan, one of four former public defenders appointed to the U.S. District Court in D.C. by Obama, was not a controversial nominee; she was confirmed in June 2014 on a 95-0 vote after a hearing where she was asked few questions. “A judge’s rulings should never be affected by political ideology or motivation,” she said in a written response to Senate Republicans at the time.
A few years later, she was just starting her bike ride to work when she fell and banged her elbow. She called her father, who said he was sure she was fine. So she finished riding to the courthouse, put on her robe and held a hearing. Only afterward did she have her arm checked, learning that her elbow was badly broken.
“As far back as I can remember, she’s not the excitable kind, and she’s not dramatic,” Robynne Chutkan said. The judge doesn’t use social media, her sister said, and didn’t jockey for the lifetime position she was nominated to in 2013. “I don’t feel like she spends a lot of time wondering, worrying what other people think. She says she’s going to come in, do her job and move on.”
For nearly a decade on the bench, Chutkan has handled high-profile cases, including that of Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty in a plot to penetrate conservative U.S. political circles without disclosing that she was advancing Russian interests. In that case, Chutkan imposed a gag order after ruling that Butina’s attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, “crossed the line” in his public defense of his client.
“It was a little frustrating,” he said, because he was responding to a false narrative, based on a government misreading of text messages, that Butina was a spy who traded sex for access. But he said Chutkan, who also reprimanded prosecutors, did what she thought was necessary. “She was trying to be fair,” he said. “At the time it was a pretty big case.”
Trump’s trial is magnitudes bigger, and Chutkan has so far refrained from issuing a similar order. The government has asked for limitations on Trump’s speech, saying people involved are likely to be harassed if disparaged by him. Less than a week after she was assigned to the case, Chutkan received a voice mail from a woman calling her the n-word and threatening her with murder if Trump lost the next election, according to court records.
Chutkan, her sister said, was not rattled.
“She kept saying, ‘I feel so sorry for her, I think she has a lot of problems,’” Robynne Chutkan said. “She really expressed compassion for this woman.”
Nor is the judge bothered by the more routine vitriol directed her way. “I’m an immigrant. I find it fantastic to live in a country where anyone can call a judge an idiot,” she said in a 2020 interview with Washington Lawyer magazine. “That’s a true democracy.”
During Trump’s presidency, when scores of challenges came through the D.C. District Court, Chutkan ruled about a half-dozen times against his administration; her opinions centered on the specific facts of the case. She guaranteed abortion access for teenagers in immigration custody, ordered the administration to resume collection of data on pay and educational disparities, and halted a plan to resume federal executions. That last decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative majority cleared the way for executions to resume.
But she ruled against opponents of a Pennsylvania pipeline, saying their “aesthetic interests or enjoyment of wildlife” were not constitutionally protected. And after the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s ban against travel from several majority-Muslim countries, she ruled that she was unable to do anything for people from those nations who had won visas from the United States.
After Trump left office, Chutkan ruled that his presidential records could be turned over to the House committee investigating Jan. 6 after he argued they should remain secret under executive privilege. Referencing a ruling by Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, she said, “Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President.” The committee held high-profile televised hearings that made public key evidence now being used by special counsel Jack Smith in the four-count indictment against Trump, and it recommended criminal charges, some similar to those he now faces in Chutkan’s courtroom.
Over the past 2½ years, Chutkan has repeatedly criticized attempts to compare Jan. 6 and its aftermath to injustices against Black people or protests for racial justice. At a sentencing in October 2021, she said “that 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 January 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy.” She called it “offensive” and “audacious” when one of the few Black people charged with involvement in the Capitol attack said he was following in the footsteps of forebears who fought for civil rights in the 1960s.
Trump’s attorneys have since argued that two comments she made from the bench make her at least appear biased against him. At one sentencing in 2021, she said, “The people who mobbed that Capitol were there in fealty, in loyalty, to one man … a blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day.” At another in 2022, she told a rioter who said he was misled by Trump and others that he “made a very good point” in noting that “the people who exhorted you and encouraged you and rallied you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged.”
In refusing to recuse herself, Chutkan wrote that she was “legally bound” to address the rioters’ assertions that “their culpability ... was minor relative to the people they viewed as the riot’s instigators” but that she “specifically withheld judgment on whether other people should be charged for conduct related to January 6.”
Former public defenders often make for less punitive judges, and before Jan. 6 rulings, Chutkan fit that mode; data from Syracuse University indicated she was likely to impose less prison time than the average judge in her court.
“I represented defendants for murders and robberies and horrible violent behavior,” she told one Jan. 6 defendant. “People are complex. They do bad things, even though they may be in other respects good people.”
She gave that rioter, a 28-year-old Texan named Christian Cortez, four months in prison for joining a group fighting police and trying to break down Capitol doors — far less than prosecutors wanted.
But more often, she has broken from her past patterns and been tougher than other judges. Through mid-September, Chutkan had sentenced every one of the 34 defendants before her to at least some time behind bars, according to Washington Post data. She granted or exceeded prosecutors’ recommendations in about 53 percent of those cases, compared with 17 percent for the rest of the judges on the D.C. bench. Defense attorneys say they have been warned by friends in the federal public defender’s office to expect Chutkan to mete out incarceration.
Statistics can be misleading; Todd Onore says he was happy to see his Jan. 6 client get a year and a day from Chutkan, rather than the 11 months requested by prosecutors, because it meant he qualified for a “good behavior” credit that could reduce his sentence to 10 months. Some defendants also prefer a short sentence of incarceration to years of court supervision; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently ruled that judges cannot impose both in most misdemeanor Jan. 6 cases.
“She had obviously some strong opinions about these things,” Onore said. “But she didn’t do anything that made me think she wasn’t going to give him a fair shake.”
Judges, said Onore and other attorneys, are entitled to see certain crimes as particularly serious and sentence accordingly.
At Cortez’s sentencing, Chutkan explained why she feels that way about Jan. 6.
“To the extent that anybody comes in this courtroom and says this cannot happen again, they’re dreaming,” she said. “The threats, the level of rhetoric out there, the level of communications that we’re getting as judges and our staff because of these cases, and other people involved in these cases are getting, it absolutely could happen again, and it has to be made crystal clear to anyone who considers doing such a thing again that the consequences are going to be certain and severe.”
Tom Jackman, Matt Viser, Emma Brown, Ann E. Marimow, Magda Jean-Louis and Alice Crites contributed to this report.“