When Donald Trump urged the judge in his federal election subversion case to set his trial for April 2026 earlier this month, he cited a landmark Supreme Court decision concerning the infamous 1931 Scottsboro Boys cases to bolster his argument that special counsel Jack Smith isn’t giving him enough time to prepare a defense.
But moments before US District Judge Tanya Chutkan scheduled the trial for March 2024 during a hearing Monday, she made her distaste for the comparison clear, taking the former president’s attorneys to task for quoting from the “profoundly different” case to try to hold off on going to trial next year.
The judge pointed out how different the facts are between a case concerning Trump’s efforts to cling to power following his 2020 election loss and one of the most high-profile race cases of the 20th century, in which nine Black youths were falsely accused of raping two White women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. The group were put through extremely fast trials that ended with death sentences for most of them that were all later reversed.
“Quoting the case, the defense argues that scheduling a too speedy trial is ‘not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice but to go forward with the haste of the mob,’” Chutkan said Monday, referring to the 1932 Supreme Court opinion in Powell v. Alabama.
“This timeline does not move the case forward with the haste of the mob,” Chutkan said. “The trial will start three years, one month, and 27 days after the events of January 6, 2021.”
The decision to reference the Supreme Court case – which required that indigent defendants receive competent counsel – in their brief also faced stinging criticism from outside the courtroom.
“It was stunningly stupid. Because one, the comparison is ridiculous. But second, if you want to alienate a judge in the case, this was exactly what to do. A female judge, a Black judge, and to talk about that case and compare it to Trump’s case was absurd,” retired California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on CNN’s “The Source” Monday night.
“And Judge Chutkan really took them up on it and said this case is entirely different. I think she was absolutely offended,” Cordell added.
Trump attorney John Lauro pushed back on criticism of the citation in an interview with CNN on Thursday, saying the Powell decision “is routinely cited in legal briefs and in Supreme Court decisions regarding the right of counsel.”
“So we were ethically required to cite to that case and bring the court’s attention to the holding and the legal principles that are set forth in Powell v. Alabama,” he said. “What we didn’t do in any way in our briefing was suggest that there are any parallels back to the factual circumstances of the Powell case with President Trump’s case.”
Lauro added that he believed Cordell’s “stunningly stupid” comment “was out of bounds because of our ethical requirement to cite the case.”
No comparison between Scottsboro Boys and Trump, judge says
Trump’s attorneys didn’t discuss the Supreme Court case during Monday’s hearing, but used the case to begin their August 17 brief to Chutkan.
“The prompt disposition of criminal cases is to be commended and encouraged,” the 1932 Supreme Court ruling states. “But, in reaching that result, a defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his defense. To do that is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice, but to go forward with the haste of the mob.”
Monday, Chutkan said there’s no similarity between the Alabama events and Trump’s case.
“The court noted that after their arrest the defendants were met at Scottsboro by a large crowd and that the attitude of the community was one of great hostility,” Chutkan said of the Supreme Court’s finding at the time. “The defendants’ trials began six days after indictment. The Supreme Court found that there was a clear denial of due process because the trial court failed to give the defendants reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel and the defendants were incapable of adequately making their own defense.”
Trump, on the other hand, “is represented by a team of zealous, experienced attorneys and has the resources necessary to efficiently review the discovery and investigate,” the judge added.
“I have seen many cases unduly delayed because a defendant lacks adequate representation or cannot properly review discovery because they are detained,” she said. “That is not the case here.”
Trump faces four counts in his case, which was brought earlier this month by special counsel Jack Smith, including conspiring to defraud the United States and to obstruct an official proceeding – the latter a charge that has already successfully been brought against rioters who breached the Capitol on January 6, 2021. He has pleaded not guilty.
Lauro told Chutkan in court on Monday that although they would follow her ruling, they would “not be able to provide adequate representation to a client who has been charged with serious offenses as a result of that trial date.”
“The trial date will deny President Trump the opportunity to have effective assistance of counsel in light of the enormity of this case,” he said.
Lauro did outline other legal avenues Trump may use to impact the trial date, however.
The Supreme Court case cited in Trump’s brief is one of two that are directly connected to the Scottsboro Boys rape cases, in which nine Black youths were falsely accused in 1931 of raping two White women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama.
The boys were en route to seek work in Memphis, Tennessee, when a fight broke out on the train and they were initially arrested on a minor charge. They were later accused of rape by two White women.
They faced a series of trials and all-White juries eventually sentenced all but the youngest to death. After a number of appeals and retrials were completed, each of the nine spent at least six years in prison.
In addition to Powell, the trials also resulted in the 1935 Supreme Court case Norris v. Alabama, which paved the way for racially diverse juries.
Alabama dropped rape charges against five of the defendants, and the sixth, Clarence Norris, received a pardon from Gov. George Wallace in 1976. In 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles issued posthumous pardons to the three Scottsboro Boys who had neither already received a pardon nor had their convictions dropped.
“Hopefully, there’s a learning curve on the lawyers’ side to not go rogue like this again and take cases that have absolutely nothing in common and try to show that they do have something in common, which in this case they did not,” Cordell told Collins.
This story has been updated with additional comment.
CNN’s Tom Watkins, Marlena Baldacci and Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.
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