WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Wednesday denied a motion brought by former President Donald Trump demanding that she recuse herself from the Jan. 6, 2021, election subversion case against him.
Trump had argued in his Sept. 11 filing that Chutkan had a “prejudgment of guilt," pointing to statements she made during the sentencing hearings of two Capitol rioters that hinted at his role as a leading cause for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The Justice Department denounced the demand in their response, citing the Watergate prosecutions as an example of a judge commenting on the gravity of a case that did not meet the necessary standard for recusal and arguing the defense had cherry-picked from Chutkan’s statements.
In her denial, the Barack Obama appointee acknowledged the importance of ensuring a judge is impartial in every case and how recusal is a necessary remedy when a judge is not, but at the same time, “justice demands that judges not recuse without cause.”
“In the wrong hands, a disqualification motion is a procedural weapon to harass opponents and delay proceedings,” Chutkan wrote, citing a D.C. Circuit’s decision in USA v. Microsoft Corp. from 2001. “If supported only by rumor, speculation, or innuendo, it is also a means to tarnish the reputation of a federal judge.”
The D.C. Circuit has further held that recusal is an “extraordinary” form of relief that should not be “lightly granted.”
Chutkan noted the defense wrongly conflated her intrajudicial statements — those made within the courtroom — which were based on the evidence and the facts of the cases before her, not “as the defense speculates, from watching the news.”
“At the outset, it bears noting that the court has never taken the position the defense ascribes to it: that former ‘President Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned,’” Chutkan wrote. “And the defense does not cite any instance of the court ever uttering those words or anything similar.”
John Lauro, Trump’s lead defense attorney in Washington, had pointed specifically to a statement Chutkan had made during the sentencing hearings of Robert Scott Palmer and Christine Priola.
In both Trump's motion and in a Truth Social post by Trump, the defense pointed to what Chutkan said before sentencing Priola to 15 months in prison. Chutkan noted in her decision that she sentenced Priola to three months fewer than the Justice Department had sought.
“I see the videotapes. I see the footage of the flags and the signs that people were carrying and the hats they were wearing and the garb. And the people who mobbed that Capitol were there in fealty, in loyalty, to one man,” Chutkan said. “It’s a blind loyalty to one person who, by the way, remains free to this day."
Chutkan expanded upon her comments at those hearings, noting that both defendants had argued before their sentencing that they should not receive lengthy prison sentences while the “purported architects” remained free.
“It is true Mr. Palmer — you have made a very good point, one that has been made before — that the people who exhorted you and encouraged you to go and take action and to fight have not been charged,” Chutkan said. “That is not this court’s position. I don’t charge anybody. I don’t negotiate plea offers. I don’t make charging decisions. I sentence people who have pleaded guilty or have been convicted.”
Chutkan said very little about Trump in these comments, instead focusing more on the defendants before her and the actions they took that day.
Trump's attempt was already unlikely to succeed, considering the similarities in his case to the government’s prosecution of President Richard Nixon’s aides following the Watergate scandal during the 1970s.
At that time, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, had asked for a new judge over statements made during the trial of a co-conspirator.
U.S. District Judge John Sirica, a Dwight D. Eisenhower appointee, noted that the Watergate scheme was “terrible,” and he was “sure this conspiracy has cost society millions of dollars … . You cannot close your eyes to these things.”
The D.C. Circuit ruled that the comments were “judicial acts” and that the standard for a disabling prejudice to warrant recusal “cannot be extracted from dignified though persistent judicial efforts to bring everyone responsible for Watergate to book.”
Trump has suggested his legal team may file a removal request to move his case out of Washington — where 93% of voters went for President Joe Biden while only 5% voted for Trump. In West Virginia, however, Trump secured 68% of the vote, making the likelihood of finding a friendlier jury higher.
However, that motion is also likely dead on arrival, as the Sixth Amendment requires a trial to take place in the “district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”Follow @Ryan_Knappy
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