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Republican-appointed judges raise alarm over Trump attacks on law

A Republican-appointed judge denounced Donald Trump’s social media attacks against the judge presiding over the former president’s hush money trial in Manhattan and his daughter, calling them assaults on the rule of law that could lead to violence and tyranny.

“When judges are threatened, and particularly when their family is threatened, it’s something that’s wrong and should not happen,” U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins in a live interview Thursday. He added, “It is very troubling because I think it is an attack on the rule of law.”

The unusual media statement by a sitting federal judge came after Trump blasted New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan and his daughter, Loren Merchan, criticizing her affiliation with a digital marketing company that works with Democratic candidates and erroneously attributing to her a social media post showing Trump behind bars.

Walton, who was appointed by presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to courts in Washington in 1981 and 1991, said “any reasonable, thinking person” would appreciate the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on some followers, intentional or not. The judge recalled how a disgruntled litigant killed the son and wounded the husband of New Jersey federal Judge Esther Salas at her home in a 2020 shooting.

Since late 2020, as Trump began escalating his attacks on the judiciary, serious investigated threats against federal judges have more than doubled, from 224 in 2021 to 457 in 2023, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, as first reported by Reuters. Federal judges in Washington say at least half of trial judges handling cases arising from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol have received a surge in threats and harassment, including death threats to their homes, with Trump’s election obstruction trial judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, placed under 24-hour protection.

“The rule of rule of law can only be maintained if we have independent judicial officers who are able to do their job and ensure that the laws are in fact enforced and that the laws are applied equally to everybody who appears in our courthouse,” Walton told CNN. He was prompted to speak out of concern for the “future of our country and the future of democracy in our country,” Walton said, “because if we don’t have a viable court system that’s able to function efficiently, then we have tyranny.”

Walton’s remarks came as several federal judges in Washington appointed by Republican presidents have spoken with increasing urgency about Trump’s disregard for historical facts and alarmed at his increasingly graphic and at times violent description of defendants prosecuted in the Jan. 6 riot as “political prisoners” and “hostages” who did nothing wrong.

“In my 37 years on the bench, I cannot recall a time when such meritless justifications of criminal activity have gone mainstream,” U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said in a January sentencing. “I have been dismayed to see distortions and outright falsehoods seep into the public consciousness.”

U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan similarly told a group of Georgetown Law School students in January that false claims that riot defendants were acting like tourists or patriots were destructive rewriting of reality. “There’s a danger that is embedded now in our communities across the country,” Hogan said.

“And we have to wonder where this is going to end up if that’s part of our history, this fraudulent story” by Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. Hogan spoke shortly after his retirement after completing 40 years on the bench and sentencing 26 Jan. 6 riot defendants.

Hogan and Lamberth were both appointed by Reagan, and both served as chief judges of the U.S. District Court in Washington, where judges have presided over more than 1,350 prosecutions for the riot that resulted after Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol where Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 election.

Five people died in the Jan. 6 attack or in the immediate aftermath, as pro-Trump rioters injured more than 100 police officers, ransacked Capitol offices, and forced lawmakers to evacuate. About 486 defendants have been charged with assaulting or impeding officers or employees, including 127 charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury.

Trump has claimed he is a victim of political persecution by the Biden administration as the two men face a 2024 rematch of the 2020 election, and continues to maintain he won the last time, despite repudiation of his arguments by nearly 40 courts, his own White House counsel, attorney general and members of his campaign. He faces a $450 million civil fraud verdict against his businesses, and four separate criminal cases charging him with paying hush money to an adult film actress, mishandling classified documents, and interfering with the 2020 election results.

Several of the 23 D.C. federal judges who have sentenced Jan. 6 defendants have noted Trump’s role in events, including judges appointed by presidents of both parties. But the recent statements by appointees of Trump’s GOP predecessors is notable in breaking with partisan affiliation. After one Jan. 6 trial last year, Walton called Trump a “charlatan” who led followers into believing unfounded allegations and falsehoods, and who “doesn’t in my view really care about democracy but only about power. And as a result of that, it’s tearing this country apart.”

All three judges have warned of a significant increase in the number of threats they and other judges have faced since the Capitol attack, which Walton called “very, very very concerning.”

“I’ve been a judge for over 40 years. And, this is a new phenomenon. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen before, but it was very rare that I would ever receive any type of a threat,” Walton said. “And unfortunately, that is no longer, the case.”

Hogan told law students threats had increased, “no question about it, I think encouraged by the prior president, unfortunately.”

“I would say half our judges have been seriously threatened” regarding their handling of cases related to Trump, Hogan said in a Jan. 22 law school talk. “It makes you nervous.”

A Texas woman was charged with threatening to kill Chutkan shortly after she was assigned Trump’s case last August, leaving a voice-mail message in the judge’s chambers calling Chutkan a racial slur and saying, “If Trump doesn’t get elected in 2024, we are coming to kill you, so tread lightly, b—-,” according to charging papers.

In January, New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron received a bomb threat to his Long Island home, hours before closing arguments were set to begin in Trump’s civil fraud case over which he was presiding.

Authorities are increasing security at the federal courthouse in Washington at a time when Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that law enforcement has seen a “deeply disturbing spike” in threats and attacks on public officials, including judges and prosecutors in Trump’s cases, even as the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee has predicted “bedlam in the country” if his criminal cases damage his candidacy.

Lamberth has said he could not deny the facts after presiding over dozens of cases, listening to hundreds of hours of testimony, and receiving thousands of pages of briefing.

“The rioters interfered with a necessary step in the constitutional process, disrupted the lawful transfer of power and thus jeopardized the American constitutional order. Although the rioters failed in their ultimate goal, their actions nonetheless resulted in the deaths of multiple people, injury to over 140 members of law enforcement and lasting trauma for our entire nation,” Lamberth said in January. “This was not patriotism; it was the antithesis of patriotism.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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