Opinion: Why we should trust Trump’s judge in election-interference case
Editor’s Note: Eric Klein is a partner at Johnson & Klein Law in Boulder, Colorado. He was a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia from 2002 to 2010. Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the History Department and the LBJ School. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Whether or not former President Donald Trump is convicted for the recent charges of conspiracy and obstruction filed in Washington, DC, there will be Americans who condemn the verdict. That is not unprecedented or unexpected. Trump has rejected the case brought by special counsel Jack Smith as politically motivated and has been summoned to appear for a hearing on Thursday.
What will matter most, going forward, is whether the American people see the trial as fair; as such, public perceptions of the judge will be enormously important. Fortunately, the judge assigned to the case, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, has the necessary experience and background to oversee a public trial that is fair and respectful, especially for this defendant.
Given Trump’s past statements about judges overseeing cases in which he is involved, he will probably claim that Chutkan is biased against him because former President Barack Obama nominated her for the bench (even though she received a 95-0 confirmation in a divided Senate). She is, in fact, a judge with an ingrained commitment to defendants’ rights and one who recognizes the danger of overly aggressive prosecutors.
This does not mean, however, that Chutkan has demonstrated any degree of bias or prejudice against those defendants or against Trump. In fact, Chutkan’s background shows that she is someone who will do everything she can to protect and respect the rights of every criminal defendant who comes before her.
She spent her formative years as a lawyer with the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia. PDS is recognized nationally as a model public defender’s office. The lawyers there receive the best training and are known as some of the most ardent and dedicated defenders in Washington, DC, and in the nation. As the lawyers at PDS are fond of saying, it is the best representation money can’t buy.
At PDS, Chutkan rose to the top ranks and was tasked with providing the most zealous representation to her clients, regardless of the seriousness or heinous nature of the charges. Chutkan did not have the ability to turn down a case that she may have found unsavory. But her representation of her clients was not an endorsement of what they were accused of doing. She understood her constitutional obligation to provide them with the zealous defense guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. And she fulfilled her duty admirably.
One of us had the fortune to overlap with Chutkan at PDS and witnessed her integrity and clear and consistent professionalism firsthand. He was even able to hear from clients about the respect and appreciation they had for her. Her reputation as a trial lawyer was second to none. Everyone knew she was talented, skilled and zealous. More important for the task at hand, judges and prosecutors alike respected her professionalism, ethics and integrity.
Chutkan’s experience as a public defender means that she, more than most, understands and values the core principles at the center of our criminal justice system — the presumption of innocence, the government’s burden of proof and the government’s obligation to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Like others at PDS, Chutkan was taught early in her career that these principles are not just legal technicalities, but values central to the validity of our justice system and even the stability of our nation. Regardless of whether a defendant is rich or poor, a person of advantage or disadvantage or powerful or powerless, Chutkan will ensure that the person’s rights are respected and protected.
Also, Chutkan, more than most, has the experience to be on the lookout for anything smelling of prosecutorial misconduct or overreach. DC public defenders do battle every day against lawyers from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, who are some of the finest trained prosecutors in the Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors come from around the country to obtain the experience available only in that office. These prosecutors are known for their own intense dedication to winning their cases — often, in the minds of many on the defense side, a dedication to winning that causes a myopic vision of justice. Because of her experience, Chutkan is perhaps uniquely aware of the risks posed by overzealous prosecutors and will be prepared to be vigilant for anything that could infringe on Trump’s rights, just as she would any other defendant who comes before her.
What has kept the American judicial system functioning is not agreement on outcomes, but a wide and enduring belief that the system is fair, that everyone has a chance to make their case. Even when certain state courts in the Jim Crow South repeatedly discriminated against African Americans, civil rights activists such as Thurgood Marshall could pursue justice in other courts, and ultimately win. There have been and continue to be valid critiques of the American judicial system — mostly focused on the impacts of class and race — but most Americans have perceived it as reasonable, acceptable and ultimately just. And few have maintained that the system disadvantages the rich and powerful.
Chutkan will not decide the verdict in Trump’s trial; that will be the role for a jury of his peers. She will, however, manage a very controversial series of hearings, and she will make some difficult decisions about process. Regardless of outcome, large numbers of Americans will disagree with each of her decisions.
Nonetheless, we believe that all Americans should accept — as we have in past instances — that this judge is pursuing fairness and justice in the courtroom. The public should know that the current defendant will receive a fair opportunity to confront the evidence against him and he will have an open chance to raise reasonable doubts about his alleged motives and actions. Although his guilt or innocence will continue to divide the country — as it does for previous controversial trials — his trial deserves bipartisan respect. It is the pursuit of justice in the courtroom that ultimately unites us as Americans.