Commentary

Part of a tiny minority in the judicial system, three Black women are safeguarding the rule of law

December 14, 2023 5:30 am

Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney in Atlanta, is pressing a racketeering case against former President Donald Trump for his attempted interference in Georgia’s 2020 election. (Getty Images)

Three Black women — two prosecutors and a judge — are in unenviable positions to lead former president Donald Trump and this nation in lessons on democracy, accountability and the rule of law.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, Atlanta-based District Attorney Fani Willis and U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan have been bombarded with threats, often racial or sexualized. A Texas woman has been arrested for a death threat against Chutkan; an Alabama man has been charged with targeting Willis.

I worry about their safety. I am also concerned that their gender and race would be used as an excuse to ignore wrongdoing and Trump’s  authoritarian plans for a second presidency. He insinuates that the prosecutions are part of a vast conspiracy to replace white people.

Yet, there were only 33 Black women — less than 2% — among the nation’s 2,100 elected chief prosecutors in 2022, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. And even with President Joe Biden’s successful push to get more women of color into judgeships, there are 59 Black women — 4% — among the 1,409 sitting federal judges.

That these three women hold such high-profile roles in rare prosecutions of a former president underscores this nation’s progress. And it instills hope that it will live up to the promise: “No one is above the law.”

James, the enforcer

Letitia James (Office of the New York State Attorney General)

James, a Brooklyn native, zeroed in on the Trump organization, whose history includes housing discrimination, unpaid contractors, a fake charity and a scam business school.

She has already won a ruling that the business inflated property values to get loans and then deflated them to unfairly reduce taxes. Trump officials mostly blame the accountants. The current trial will set penalties. James wants at least $250 million to go to the state.

Voluntarily attending the civil trial, Trump lashed out. An appeals court upheld the judge’s order to stop verbal and online attacks against the judge’s clerk. Trump calls James “corrupt,” “racist” and a “political hack.”  He nicknamed her “Peekaboo,” rhyming with a racist slur.

First Black and first woman in her post, James served nine years on the city council and five years as public advocate before being elected in 2018. Her office is challenging the nonprofit status of the National Rifle Association and recently sued Pepsi and Frito Lay for “plastic pollution” of the Buffalo River.

After Trump would rant to the media during trial breaks, James would have her say at the end of the day: “Donald Trump resorted to bullying and name-calling to distract from the facts,” she said. “But the truth always comes out. I will not be bullied. I will not be harassed.”

Willis, the fearless

Many legal experts criticized Willis’ decision to file a criminal racketeering case against Trump and 18 others for various election-interference efforts in Georgia. Yet four defendants — including three former Trump lawyers — have already arranged plea deals before the August trials. No deals, she said, for Trump, attorney Rudy Giuliani and former chief of staff Mark Meadows. Meanwhile, she is battling defense attorneys trying to postpone the case past the November election.

Introduced to the law by her attorney father, the divorced mother of two spent 16 years as an assistant county prosecutor and a short stint in private practice until elected in 2022. Defeating a six-term incumbent who was her former boss, she is the first woman in the job.

As an assistant prosecutor, Willis led the 2015 prosecution of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal which ended in conviction of 11. Last May, her office indicted Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug and associates on 56 counts of gang-related crimes.

Taking on Trump has meant having to block Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, from access to her case. Calling her a “lunatic Marxist,” Trump falsely claimed she had a relationship with a rapper she is prosecuting. State lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully to sanction her or remove her from office.

In 2022, CNN asked Willis whether she could even envision prosecuting a former president. She responded that what she envisions is a society where “it doesn’t matter if you’re rich poor, Black, white, Democrat or Republican. If you violated the law, you’re going to be charged.”

Chutkan, the straight shooter

Tanya Chutkan (uscourts.gov)

In 2021, Chutkan was assigned a case arguing that executive privilege meant Trump did not have to respond to the House’s Jan.6 investigation. She didn’t buy it. “Presidents are not kings, and plaintiff is not president,” she declared.

Now she is overseeing the federal election interference case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith. She ruled that Trump is not immune from prosecution. “That position does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass,” she wrote. At the request of Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to quickly review that ruling. On Wednesday, Chutkan paused the case until Trump’s appeal of her immunity ruling is resolved.

A Jamaica native, Chutkan grew up in a prominent family; her father is an orthopedic surgeon, her mother directed the national dance group and later practiced law. After college and law school in the U.S., Chutkan spent 11 years as a D.C. public defender, followed by 12 years at a white-collar law firm. The divorced mother of two was nominated for the judgeship by President Barack Obama in 2014, confirmed 95–0 by the Senate.

In preparation for the March 4 trial, Chutkan has issued other no-nonsense rulings. For instance, she:

  • Rejected a Trump request to exclude references to Jan. 6 from his trial.
  • Issued a gag order on Trump that was largely upheld on appeal.
  • Denied Trump review of all the records from the Jan. 6 House investigation. Since he has summaries, she called the request “a fishing expedition” that could delay the trial.

Meanwhile, Chutkan’s security is so tight that U.S. marshals go with her to get coffee in the building where she works. A childhood friend told The New York Times that, after Chutkan was randomly selected for this trial, she called to say: “Please pray for me. I’ve got the case.”

And with Trump promising a second term of personal revenge, crackdowns on civil liberties and destruction of the government, we should pray for our nation as well.

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Vanessa Gallman
Vanessa Gallman

Vanessa Gallman, a Kentucky Lantern freelance columnist, worked for more than two decades as editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She was also a local government editor for The Washington Post and a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Inc.

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