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What to know about Tanya Chutkan, the judge overseeing Trump's Jan. 6 case


Former President Trump returned to Washington today, and not for the reason he'd like. He appeared in federal court to be arraigned, to be read four criminal charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. When that case goes to trial, the judge will be a woman named Tanya Chutkan. She's a U.S. district court judge, and we've called Neal Katyal to tell us about her background. He's the former acting solicitor general of the United States. Neal, welcome and thanks for making time.

NEAL KATYAL: Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: I want to read you a quote from this judge. She wrote, quote, "presidents are not kings, and a plaintiff is not president," end of quote. That's from when she ruled against former President Trump in 2021, and that ruling allowed the House January 6 Select Committee to access his White House internal files. Do you read anything into that quote and how it might affect her viewpoint in this case?

KATYAL: I don't. I mean, that is the most mainstream of decisions that any judge would accept. Indeed, that decision was accepted 8 to 1 by the United States Supreme Court, which obviously has a bunch of appointees from Donald Trump. And yet it was resoundingly rejected, including by all three of the nominees that Donald Trump put on the Supreme Court. So I don't read anything into that except that Judge Chutkan's is going to approach the issues straight up. She has an enormous, enormous reputation in Washington, D.C., among lawyers. Whether you're a Republican lawyer or a Democratic lawyer, whether you're a prosecutor or a defense attorney, she's easily one of the most respected judges in this city.

PFEIFFER: Judge Chutkan is also one of the federal judges presiding over the trials of suspected January 6 attackers. The Associated Press reports that each of the 38 sentences she's handed down involve jail time, and she's considered a relatively harsh sentencer, at least compared to her peers handling these cases. Does that tell you anything relevant to this case?

KATYAL: No. Again, I don't think so. I think almost all of these January 6 defendants are being sentenced in accordance with the government's requests, both in her courtroom and other courtrooms in Washington, D.C. And I don't think we can draw too much from the few instances in which she has rejected the government's request and gone upward and sentenced someone to a higher amount. Her sentencing decisions are understood to be well within the mainstream of what's going on in the D.C. courthouse.

And if anything, I would say she has a reputation for being a little bit of a defendant-friendly judge. I think it probably comes from the fact that she was herself a public defender, a defense attorney for many, many years before she joined the bench. And so she is someone who I think comes to the bench with a real hearty appreciation for the rights of criminal defendants. And, you know, I think that should give Donald Trump, you know, some comfort. This is not a judge who's, like, known to be on one side or the other of issues, but someone who takes the issues that are before her and treats them fairly.

PFEIFFER: Although, generally, she's considered to have a liberal background - and she was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama. And as a result, some of Trump's supporters are already attacking her in the court of public opinion. Although I understand, and you've indicated this, that you see her selection as something of a - somewhat beneficial for the defense. How is that - in what way?

KATYAL: First of all, I can't - I think it's so dangerous to think about a judge just because of the president who appointed them and do what Donald Trump has called them, Obama judges or things like that, which he did, you know, many times. When you put on that black robe, you cease to be a political actor. Many of them - many judges, of course, weren't even political actors, but even former politicians, we have them on the bench. And, you know, we understand that they reach fair results. So that's, I think, the first thing I'd say.

The second is I think it's a real mistake to think about liberal versus conservative and liberal meaning, oh, that's bad for Donald Trump. You know, it's mostly liberal judges who are very pro-criminal defendants and defendants' rights. And Donald Trump is, of course, a criminal defendant here. So I think it's just the wrong matrix to think about it. The right way to think about it is, is this a judge who's meticulous in her work? Is it someone who listens fairly to both sides and reaches an appropriate determination? And so far, I've heard not one example, not one in all her years on the bench, in which she's accused of doing anything else but being that fair, impartial, hardworking, smart judge that I think her reputation describes her as.

PFEIFFER: That is former acting solicitor general of the U.S., Neal Katyal. Thank you for your time.

KATYAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.