The federal judge now overseeing the latest — and perhaps most important — criminal case against former President Donald Trump has previously shown her judicial temperament on environmental cases involving everything from gas pipeline siting to national monuments.
The myriad environmental cases, though only a modest part of her overall record, suggest that District Judge Tanya Chutkan is a stickler for respect, a serious setter of deadlines, a writer of opinions that are not easily pigeonholed and an occasional splitter of differences.
In a 2015 lawsuit, for instance, a group called California Communities Against Toxics urged Chutkan to give EPA only two years to review emissions standards for 20 sources. EPA wanted to be given until 2021. Chutkan settled in March 2020.
“While the court does not doubt the urgency of revising and promulgating standards to regulate emissions, addressing the ongoing health and environmental threats they pose, the court finds … that [the environmentalists’] timeline may be simply too compressed at this stage to afford any reasonable possibility of compliance,” Chutkan wrote.
Consequently, Chutkan explained that she settled on a deadline “in between that requested” by the two sides.
Deadlines are likely to play a big part in the trial judge’s handling of the four-count criminal case brought against Trump on Tuesday by special counsel Jack Smith. The grand jury indictment accused the former president of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election, spreading lies for months that he had won and trying to exploit his supporters’ violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop certification of the election results that made Joe Biden the president.
Trump’s attorneys, in a separate Florida case involving the former president’s handling of classified documents, have sought to get that trial pushed back until after the November 2024 election. Prosecutors in that case, also from Smith’s office, have contended the delay isn’t necessary.
Smith said Tuesday his office will seek a “speedy trial” in the new case but did not reference whether that would come before the 2024 election. In statements posted to social media, Trump characterized the latest charges against him as “election interference,” noting his bid to return to the White House is already underway.
Chutkan has already gained attention for her sentencing of defendants convicted in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, issuing harsher punishments than the Justice Department’s own prosecutors had recommended.
One attorney who has had cases assigned to Chutkan, and who was granted anonymity to speak openly, described the judge as “practical but also tough.”
“In my experience, she was very deliberate,” the attorney said. “She was certainly very prepared, but when taking things under advisement she would think about them and make sure she was spending the time to consider everything that was in front of her.”
Since her appointment by then-President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2014, Chutkan has sided sometimes with liberals and sometimes with conservatives; she has sometimes pleased conservationists but other times ruled against them.
In 2017, for instance, Chutkan heard a lawsuit filed by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over the PennEast pipeline project, a 110-mile natural gas pipeline that would run from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. A transcript of a March 3, 2017, oral argument in the case showed Chutkan’s focus on key points.
“Let me get to the heart of the matter,” Chutkan told one attorney before hitting him with one of many point-blank questions.
Chutkan ended up dismissing the environmentalists’ lawsuit, writing that “neither … aesthetic interests or enjoyment of wildlife [are] ‘liberty interests’ of the type protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
She has overseen the long-running legal battle over whether Trump exceeded his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 when he removed more than 2 million acres from a pair of Utah monuments in late 2017.
Although arguments in two separate lawsuits — one focused on the Bears Ears National Monument and the other on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — wrapped in mid-2020, Chutkan never ruled in the case. Instead, the battle stretched out for so long that Biden reversed Trump’s actions, restoring the disputed public lands to both monuments.
A sharp-tongued exchange during a March 13, 2019, oral argument with a Justice Department lawyer in a related monuments case that concerned Freedom of Information Act requests showed Chutkan’s insistence on respect, as she hammered the government lawyer over the Interior Department’s slow pace.
“I’m not sure where the Department of the Interior would be under the impression that it could simply consolidate … all the orders together and say, ‘well, in all these cases we’re going to only produce X number of documents a month,’ because it certainly didn’t have the permission of this court to do so,” Chutkan said, a transcript shows. “Can you explain that?”
“My understanding is that has been explained to those other judges in which …” the Justice Department lawyer started to say.
“It hasn’t been explained to me,” Chutkan said.
Chutkan subsequently issued a stay in the two monument cases centered on the Antiquities Act in early 2021. She ordered both sides — the federal government and intervenors including Utah’s government on one side, and Native American tribes and environmentalists on the other — to either declare the dispute moot, negotiate a resolution or ask to continue with the lawsuit.
Since then, both the Biden administration and plaintiffs have been locked in negotiations for a resolution, while the Utah Attorney General’s Office has argued the cases should be declared moot.
Other cases Chutkan has overseen include a battle over the sale of a 79,000-acre offshore lease to Equinor ASA for a New York wind farm, which was also declared moot.
A native of Jamaica, Chutkan graduated from George Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Prior to being appointed to the federal bench, she worked both as a public defender and as a white-collar litigator with the firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP.
Chutkan was with the high-powered law firm, for instance, when it represented a company called Countywide Petroleum in a 2007 price-fixing suit brought against Venezuela’s government-owned Petróleos de Venezuela and others.
The future judge was just one of multiple Boies Schiller attorneys named in various court filings in the case, which was later consolidated with other similar lawsuits.
Her experience as a public defender has not always made her sympathetic to underdog claims.
In 2015, for instance, Chutkan summarily dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by a 55-year-old African American former employee of the Bureau of Land Management. She cited, in part, other decisions that “purely subjective injuries, such as dissatisfaction with a reassignment, public humiliation, or loss of reputation, are not adverse actions” that merit a remedy.