Polarizing the Jan. 6 Justice System


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Federal judges have significant discretion in handing down sentences, but in politically charged cases it’s important that they don’t give the impression that criminal defendants are being treated differently because of their politics.

Deliberately or not, that’s what federal Judge

Tanya Chutkan

did this week in a sentencing hearing for a defendant who pleaded guilty to “parading, demonstrating, or picketing” in the Capitol without authorization during the Jan. 6 riot.

The prosecutor recommended that

Matthew Mazzocco

serve three months of home confinement for the misdemeanor charge. Judge Chutkan imposed a 45-day jail sentence. Judges have the authority to depart upward from prosecutors’ recommendations and occasionally do—the charge Mr. Mazzocco pleaded guilty to can carry up to six months in jail.

Yet Judge Chutkan’s commentary during sentencing suggested that her decision was influenced by the politics of Jan. 6 lawbreakers. She gratuitously invoked the summer Black Lives Matter protests and riots, favorably comparing them to the events of Jan. 6: “People gathered all over the country last year to protest the violent murder by the police of an unarmed man—some of those protests became violent,” the judge said at the sentencing hearing, according to ABC News.

She added that “to compare the actions of people protesting mostly peacefully for civil rights to those of a violent mob seeking to overthrow the lawfully elected government is a false equivalency and ignores the very real danger that the Jan. 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy.”

The defendant in this case, according to the FBI statement of facts, “is seen and heard on the video telling others not to take or destroy anything.” He copped to a misdemeanor picketing charge, not to attempting to overthrow the government. Judge Chutkan’s soliloquy implies that he deserves a more severe punishment than those who did the same thing in service of a political cause she favors.

The length of one defendant’s misdemeanor jail term isn’t of grave national importance. But the legitimacy of the justice system is. A revisionist campaign is underway on the right to dismiss or even support the Jan. 6 riot. If judges let politics influence their sentencing, that campaign will be bolstered and the rule of law will be harmed.

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Appeared in the October 8, 2021, print edition.


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