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All Rise for Judge Tanya Chutkan, Presiding
Photo of Judge Tanya Chutkan, courtesy of law.com
Today I want to cover the other big deal that took place in our court system on Monday. We all know the main story: Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is hearing the federal January 6 case against Trump in D.C., ordered a trial date of March 4, 2024. It was a huge blow to Trump and his legal team, who had pressed for an April 2026 date, no doubt hoping to land on a compromise date sometime in 2025, well after the election.
Some analysis has since emerged from that hearing, and it is worth discussing for a few reasons.
First, because Trump’s main weapon is delay, Judge Chutkan’s handling of the trial date, and her reasoning behind setting it in March of 2024, is of continuing importance, not only to the Georgia state trial schedule itself but also to any future challenges to it, which Trump’s lawyers have already threatened to raise on appeal.
Second, the way in which Judge Chutkan conducted herself—cool, no nonsense, factual—was in stark contrast to the tone of Trump’s lawyer, John Lauro. It sets up a dynamic and a model that other judges could look to when dealing with a bombastic, aggressive defense from Trump’s team.
Third, and perhaps most promisingly, Judge Chutkan’s treatment of Trump, without regard to his political stature or his campaign priorities, provided another shining example for other judges to emulate. I have pulled some choice moments from the hearing that highlight this.
While it is still early in the case, and Trump will do everything he can to get the trial out of D.C. and to smear the reputation of Judge Chutkan, he had best be warned. Chutkan is a judge who comes prepared, who brings receipts, and who brooks no foolishness.
I hope today’s write-up leaves you feeling the same way.
The setting of the trial date
As Kyle Cheney of Politico reported, most of the 90-minute hearing on Monday was spent in arguments over whether there would be sufficient time for the defense to prepare, given the volume of discovery turned over by Jack Smith’s office.
Trump’s team had submitted a brief that was in many aspects ridiculous, comparing the amount of material to having to read War and Peace 78 times each day, with a ludicrous chart depicting the stacked-up paper far exceeding the heights of the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument. They had also argued that the median length of a case in the District could be measured in years, and that therefore their request for a trial date in April 2026 was not unreasonable. At the hearing, Lauro stated repeatedly that, given the number of motions he intended to file, there was no way he could be ready without years to prepare.
Chutkan wasn’t buying it. She observed that, as a former public defender, she had never seen the government go to such lengths to assemble and curate the evidence as it had here. She also found that the defense had been over-inclusive on what constituted time to trial. And she observed, receipts in hand, that the defense had cherry-picked case length data from the Covid era, when courts were greatly slowed. They had even incorrectly cited one of her own cases back at her to support their claim. (They should have checked to see which judge had actually been presiding.)
As reported by NBC legal analyst Ryan J. Reilly, who was present during the hearing, Chutkan agreed that Smith’s proposed date of January 2, 2024 was too soon, but she noted that the public has rights here, too, including to a speedy trial.
As for the prospect of reviewing voluminous discovery, she observed that “Discovery in 2023 is not sitting in a warehouse with boxes of paper, looking at every single page.” (As I wrote in an earlier piece, modern discovery uses digitized searches for key words, with voluminous duplicate documents automatically removed.)
Judge Chutkan further noted that there were no co-defendants in the case, and that the defense hadn’t identified any similarly situated cases that were delayed as long as they had requested.
Moreover, this wasn’t a “Surprise! He’s been indicted!” situation, she remarked, observing that Trump has known about the existence of the grand jury since September of 2022, as well as the identity of many of the witnesses that Lauro now claims he would need to interview. “Why would the defense need two years to investigate?” she asked.
The defense made one further unforced, tactical blunder in its filing, which I highlighted last week, when it invoked the case of Powell v. Alabama—the Scottsboro Boys case—as support for pushing the trial date back. They pulled this quote from the case, seemingly oblivious to its context:
A defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his defense. To do that is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice, but to go forward with the haste of the mob.
Pro-tip: If you’re a rich, white, famous defendant, you shouldn’t invoke a case comparing yourself to a group of Black teens who were falsely accused of rape, railroaded into show trials without effective counsel, and then unjustly sentenced to death. And you really shouldn’t do that before a Black judge who was a former public defender. To do so, as retired Judge LaDoris Cordell remarked to CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, was not only wrong but “stunningly stupid.”
As MSNBC reported, Judge Chutkan called the defense out for the Powell citation, noting that
The young Black defendants in that case “were met at Scottsboro by a large crowd and that the attitude of the community was one of great hostility.”
Their trials “began six days after indictments.”
The Supreme Court found “a clear denial of due process because the trial court failed to give the defendants reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel and the defendants were incapable of adequately making their own defense.”
Chutkan found that “for any number of reasons,” Trump’s case “is profoundly different from Powell.” She observed that the former president “is represented by a team of zealous, experienced attorneys and has the resources necessary to efficiently review the discovery and investigate.”
The tone and tenor of the hearing
“Take the temperature down,” Judge Chutkan said, not once, but twice to the apparently overheated Trump lawyer, John Lauro.
The first time was in response to his nearly-yelled declaration, “This is a request for a show trial, not a speedy trial!"
After the judge allowed Lauro to go on, she had to admonish him again. “As I said, let's take the temperature down,” Chutkan warned, adding, “Let’s not overlook the fact that Mr. Trump has considerable resources."
CBS News commentator Scott McFarlane, who sat in the courtroom for the hearing, observed,
What transcended the points of law and the arguments in this 90-minute hearing was at times the “tone.” When Trump’s defense attorney, John Lauro, began making his arguments, it was in a noticeably loud voice. It was an adamant argument, so much so that Judge Tanya Chutkan had twice urged Lauro to take it down a notch. Cool off. And that was striking because that was the tone and tenor of a losing argument.
McFarlane noted that Lauro actually cut Chutkan off a few times. But in contrast to Lauro, Chutkan maintained a “measured tone” throughout, “never rising in volume as the defense lawyer did.”
The federal case will not be televised, and that’s a shame because the American people deserve to see, and hear, that Trump’s lawyers are mostly bluster and volume, while the judge and the prosecutors are by contrast reasonable, measured and calm.
And that is ultimately how to deal with lawyers and litigants acting like petulant children not getting their way: firmly and fairly. If a later appeal is taken on the grounds that Judge Chutkan abused her discretion in setting the trial date, thereby depriving Trump of adequate representation by counsel, her reasonableness, thoroughness and demeanor during the hearing will all be relevant. (Spoiler alert: A guilty verdict will not get overturned on the ground of inadequate counsel due to lack of time to prepare.)
Trump as any other defendant
Monday was the second time Judge Chutkan showed the nation how to deal with a defendant like Trump.
As I covered in an earlier piece in The Big Picture (don’t forget to subscribe!), the first instance was when Judge Chutkan considered a motion by the government for a protective order. During the hearing, she had to admonish Trump’s lawyers that further efforts by their client to taint the jury pool could result in greater urgency to hold the trial sooner in order to limit the damage. That’s a rather brilliant move because it hits Trump where it hurts the most while not setting him up further as a martyr. She also made it clear that she wasn’t going to consider the political calendar or Trump’s “day job” as a candidate. (I’m still laughing about “day job.”)
In this past Monday’s hearing, Judge Chutkan doubled down on this principle. As Politico reported, she emphasized that she would treat Trump like any other defendant, meaning she would not grant him any “more or less deference.” His campaign and political schedule would not factor into her decisions, she noted. And she drew a convincing parallel between Trump and a professional athlete defendant, noting it would be “inappropriate” to schedule a trial date around that athlete’s schedule.
“Setting a trial date does not depend and should not depend on the defendant’s personal and professional obligations,” Chutkan declared. “Mr. Trump, like any defendant, will have to make the trial date work regardless of his schedule.”
That schedule happens to put the trial on the Monday before Super Tuesday, when a big chunk of the GOP delegates will be allocated among the contenders. Welp. She meant it when she wouldn’t take his political calendar into account.
Chutkan also made it clear she knew what was up with Trump’s busy criminal trial schedule in other matters. In fact, she announced during the hearing that she had spoken to New York state judge Juan Merchan, who indicated that the false business statements case over hush money payments might be rescheduled in light of her setting of a March 4, 2024 federal trial date.
That’s right. Chutkan phoned up another judge and said, “Hey, can you clear the calendar for this?” (In case you’re wondering, it is perfectly fine and normal for judges to confer on scheduling matters.)
This should all serve as a model for how to handle a Trump case, especially for the less experienced judges on other Trump matters. That includes especially Judge Scott McAfee in Fulton County, who has less than nine months on the bench. Judges are free to, and should, ignore Trump’s political candidacy in setting schedules and moving the case to trial. He isn’t special in any way as a charged, criminal defendant.
In sum, if these first two hearings are a preview of what we should expect from Judge Chutkan, the matter is in very capable hands indeed.
Finally, I simply have to observe this: It probably irks Trump to no small degree that the professionalism, experience and skill of three powerful Black women—District Attorney Fani Willis in Georgia, Attorney General Letitia James in New York, and the Hon. Tanya Chutkan in D.C.—will largely determine his fate and even his freedom in this era of accountability.
Karma sometimes has a wicked sense of irony.