Tanya Chutkan, the hardline judge overseeing Trump’s election case

Former President Donald Trump has been indicted — again. This time, he is facing federal charges related to his alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which eventually boiled over into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

While Trump’s prior federal case, related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents, is being overseen by a Republican judge that he appointed, this case will be overseen by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, a staunch liberal who has “stood out as one of the toughest punishers of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol,” The Associated Press reported. She has also ruled against the former president in his prior legal efforts, using some of the strongest language seen by a federal judge against Trump. 

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Chutkan’s assignment to the former president’s case “may worry Mr. Trump’s legal team,” BBC News noted, especially given her reputation for punishing Jan. 6ers — and because the indictment itself alleges that Trump directly “attempted to exploit the violence and chaos at the Capitol … based on knowingly false claims of election fraud.” But who exactly is Chutkan, and what might her previous judicial experience mean for Trump? 

Judicial beginnings 

Chutkan, 61, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. She began her journey to the bench with a BA in economics from George Washington University before obtaining her JD from the University of Pennsylvania, according to her profile from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

Chutkan then worked as a trial attorney in Washington, D.C., where she “argued several appellate cases and tried over 30 cases, including numerous serious felony matters,” her profile said. She eventually joined a private law firm with clients including “antitrust class action plaintiffs, as well as individual and corporate defendants involved in complex state and federal litigation.”

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In 2013, then-President Barack Obama nominated Chutkan to serve as a U.S. District Court judge, where she has sat ever since. 

Bench life and Trump saga

Given her appointment by Obama, it’s no surprise that Chutkan “ruled in an arguably liberal-leaning way in several notable cases,” The New York Times reported. It is unclear if she is a registered Democrat, though the Times reported that she had “donated money to [Obama’s] campaigns” prior to her judicial appointment. 

Chutkan, whom the Times described as “deeply versed in running trials,” said during her Senate confirmation hearing that “impartiality is bedrock.” During her time as a judge, Chutkan has “presided over dozens of criminal cases against alleged Jan. 6 rioters,” CNN noted. At one sentencing hearing in December 2021, Chutkan told a rioter that “trying to stop the peaceful transition of power, assaulting law enforcement, is going to be met with certain punishment.” She sentenced the rioter to five years in prison, which up to that point had been the longest term yet for a Jan. 6 defendant.

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An AP investigation last year found that Chutkan had “consistently taken the hardest line against Jan. 6 defendants of any judge” in the Washington, D.C., area. 

Chutkan’s first judicial encounter with Trump came in November 2021, when she ruled that the former president couldn’t keep Jan. 6-related documents from being turned over to the House select committee investigating Jan. 6. Chutkan gave a strong rebuke of Trump in her ruling, writing that “presidents are not kings, and [Trump] is not president,” noting that executive privilege did not apply to his documents. 

Given this history, Chutkan “appears to be the worst-case scenario for the former president,” Intelligencer said. However, she also appeared to acknowledge the high stakes of the upcoming trial — when asked how she was feeling following her assignment to the case, Chutkan replied, “Good … I think.”

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