Judge presiding over Trump's federal election prosecution denies motion for recusal, defends prior statements alleged to display bias and prejudgment

By 
 September 28, 2023

Attorneys for former President Donald Trump, in a court filing earlier this month, cited alleged evidence of partisan bias and pre-judgment in calling for the recusal of the district judge presiding over Trump's prosecution by the special counsel for alleged acts to overturn the federal 2020 election results.

However, D.C. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled Wednesday to deny the motion from Trump's attorneys that called for her recusal, according to The Hill.

She instead argued that her own remarks in prior cases which were highlighted as evidence of her bias and pre-judgment had been taken out of context and did not serve as a valid basis for her to recuse herself from the current case involving the former president.

Trump argues biased judge should be recused

Axios reported on Sept. 11 that former President Trump's attorneys filed a motion that sought the recusal and removal of Judge Chutkan from the federal case due to allegations that she had previously "suggested that President Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned," which they asserted were "inherently disqualifying."

The nine-page filing declared, "Although Judge Chutkan may genuinely intend to give President Trump a fair trial -- and may believe that she can do so -- her public statements unavoidably taint these proceedings, regardless of outcome. The public will reasonably and understandably question whether Judge Chutkan arrived at all of her decisions in this matter impartially, or in fulfillment of her prior negative statements regarding President Trump."

As evidence in support of that assertion, the motion highlighted specific remarks that Chutkan had made during sentencing hearings for two separate defendants charged and convicted for their participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot of 2021, in which she appeared to agree with those defendants and their own assertions that the individuals who instigated the riot -- including then-President Trump -- had not been charged or deemed criminally culpable for what occurred.

"Public statements of this sort create a perception of prejudgment incompatible with our justice system," the motion stated. "In a case this widely watched, of such monumental significance, the public must have the utmost confidence that the Court will administer justice neutrally and dispassionately. Judge Chutkan’s pre-case statements undermine that confidence and, therefore, require disqualification."

Judge denies recusal motion

Yet, on Sept. 27, Judge Chutkan issued a 20-page decision in which she denied the motion for recusal based on her determination that recusing herself would be unwarranted in this case.

After providing some background and context with regard to the highlighted Jan. 6 cases, including additional comments she made at sentencing, the judge addressed the legal standard at play here and warned that recusals should not be granted "without cause," given that it could be used as "a procedural weapon to harass opponents and delay proceeding," to "tarnish the reputation of a federal judge," or as a form of "judge shopping."

Chutkan then explained how, based on the full context of her prior remarks, she had simply been addressing arguments and potential mitigating factors raised by the defendants during trial and was not expressing her own personal opinion or pre-judgment of the former president's criminal culpability, which she further asserted had not been clearly stated but rather was inferred by Trump and his attorneys.

"A reasonable person -- aware of the statutory requirement that the court address the defendant’s arguments and state its reasons for its sentence -- would understand that in making the statements contested here, the court was not issuing vague declarations about third parties’ potential guilt in a hypothetical future case; instead, it was fulfilling its duty to expressly evaluate the defendants’ arguments that their sentences should be reduced because other individuals whom they believed were associated with the events of January 6 had not been prosecuted," Chutkan wrote.

She later added, "To extrapolate an announcement of Defendant’s guilt from the court’s silence is to adopt a 'hypersensitive, cynical, and suspicious' perspective rather than a reasonable one."

Decision can be appealed

The Hill noted that Trump's attorneys can appeal Judge Chutkan's decision against recusal, though the bar in such instances is relatively high.

Meanwhile, in response to the ruling, a Trump spokesperson said, "Fairness and impartiality are central tenets of our judicial system.

Judges must not only be in fact, impartial, but must also appear to be unbiased. Based on her prior statements in other cases that she already holds an opinion regarding President Trump, his legal team believes that Judge Chutkan should have recused herself."

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