Judge Amit Mehta sounded perturbed, to say the least.
The D.C. District Court judge handling numerous January 6 legal matters, including the Justice Department’s high-profile prosecution of the Oath Keepers, flatly dismissed concerns by defense attorneys that the first trial in the case will coincide with public hearings held by the January 6 Select Committee later this year.
“Even if Congress is on the steps of the courthouse reading the [final] report, I am not moving the September trial,” Mehta warned during a status hearing last week for nine Oath Keepers accused of seditious conspiracy among other charges.
Mehta’s outburst was telling. In any other jurisdiction in the country, a political stunt by a handful of partisan lawmakers would be widely criticized as an unfair hurdle for defendants facing trial on the same issue at the same time—especially for an exceedingly rare crime, akin to treason, for which the government is seeking life in prison. Further, any frustration would be directed at the politicians interfering in such a serious prosecution, not at defense attorneys protecting the best interest of their clients.
But of course, that isn’t the case in the District of Columbia. (See any lawsuit filed during the Trump era as evidence.) The tawdry marriage between Democratic Party politics and the legal process in the nation’s capital is routinely blessed by federal judges duty-bound to referee that line. And no one better represents the Beltway bench’s flagrant disregard for political interference than Mehta.
Appointed to the court by Barack Obama in 2014, Mehta, who emigrated with his family from India as a toddler, has taken judicial activism to a new level, particularly with respect to Donald Trump and his supporters. In 2019, Mehta denied Trump’s motion to prevent the Democratic-led House Oversight Committee from obtaining financial records dating back to 2011 from his accounting firm, arguing the committee presented “valid legislative purposes” for its request. A few months later, Mehta ruled against the Trump Administration’s plan to force pharmaceutical companies to publicly disclose the cost of prescription drugs.
The events of January 6, 2021, however, have shaken Mehta to his partisan core. His comments clearly demonstrate a biased view of what happened that day, not to mention a dubious—if not intentionally misleading—grasp of the facts. And the judge has created an egregious conflict of interest in handling the Oath Keepers criminal case by ruling against the group in a separate proceeding just a few months ago.
In advancing a civil lawsuit to hold Trump and others—including the Oath Keepers—responsible for “emotional harm” suffered by Democratic House members and law enforcement officers, Mehta dramatically set the scene. “January 6, 2021 was supposed to mark the peaceful transition of power. It had been that way for over two centuries, one presidential administration handing off peacefully to the next. Violence and disruption happened in other countries, but not here. This is the United States of America, and it could never happen to our democracy,” Mehta wrote in a 112-page ruling in February. “But it did that very afternoon.”
Repeating the lie that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died on duty that day, Mehta erroneously claimed that January 6 was “the first-ever presidential transfer of power marred by violence.” (Not only did the transfer of power not occur on January 6, but the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump was marred by violent protests and destruction across Washington, D.C.)
Mehta then denied the motion to dismiss the case. “The court concludes that the Complaints establish a plausible conspiracy involving President Trump. That civil conspiracy included the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers—and others who entered the Capitol on January 6th with the intent to disrupt the Certification of the Electoral College vote through force, intimidation, or threat.”
This is the same judge now expected to objectively manage criminal trials against the Oath Keepers over the next year or so.
His role is not inconsequential. Mehta will choose which evidence is allowed at trial and who sits on the juries among other crucial decisions. But he just concluded that the Oath Keepers participated in a conspiracy against the government, the very offense for which several members are criminally charged. How can he protect their rights in upcoming trials when he’s essentially declared their guilt in a separate order? Surely this isn’t lost on prosecutors. Will they present Mehta’s own words to a jury?
And he’s already scuttled the presumption of innocence for some. Three members of the Oath Keepers have been held behind bars since early 2021 under Mehta’s orders, even though none is accused of committing a violent crime that day. In the case of Kenneth Harrelson, a veteran with no criminal history arrested on January 27, 2021, for his minimal participation in the protest, Mehta concluded Harrelson was too dangerous to release.
When Harrelson and another detained co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, again appealed for bond based on the prison’s demands for COVID-19 vaccines, Mehta openly mocked their concerns. “Defendants, not surprisingly, offer no evidence to support their fantastic fears of forced injections,” Mehta wrote in December. “Defendants also suggest that they are being treated unfairly and disparately for refusing to be vaccinated—but again they offer no evidence in support. The bulk of Defendants’ Motion is a lengthy diatribe questioning vaccine efficacy and safety.”
And there is no way for defendants to escape Mehta’s grip over his kangaroo court. Last year, Mehta denied a change of venue motion to move the Oath Keepers trial out of Washington by insisting the residents of a city which voted nearly 94 percent for Joe Biden, and has been deluged with nonstop local and national news coverage of the Capitol protest, can be open-minded.
“[N]ot once in my time as a judge or a defense lawyer, [have I] thought that the people of the District of Columbia who’ve served on juries have done anything other than the job they’ve been asked to, which is dispassionately view the evidence without regard to what the conduct is that’s alleged and who the defendant is,” Mehta lectured.
Since then, D.C. juries have returned unanimous guilty verdicts against every January 6 defendant in record time.
Mehta has not minced words when it comes to whom he believes is responsible for what happened, in his deluded opinion, on January 6: Donald Trump.
During a sentencing hearing in November for John Lolos, who pleaded guilty to the petty offense of “parading” in the Capitol, Mehta blasted Trump without naming names. “The fact remains that he and others were called to Washington, D.C., by an elected official, prompted to walk to the Capitol by an elected official,” Mehta ranted. “People like Mr. Lolos were told lies, told falsehoods, told our election was stolen when it clearly was not. We’re here today deciding whether Mr. Lolos should spend 30 days in jail when those who created the conditions that led to Mr. Lolos’ conduct, led to the events of Jan. 6 [haven’t been] held to account for their actions and their word.”
This is a judge who also will sit on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court until 2028.
Mehta is not the only judge on the D.C. District Court to express open contempt for Trump and his supporters while opining about the “unprecedented” nature of the “attack” on the Capitol—in fact, they all have to one degree or another. But he is by far the most powerful. And the powerless Americans before him have no relief in sight.