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‘Stunningly stupid’: Trump makes bizarre analogy of his case to ‘Scottsboro Boys’ prosecution of Black teens


Tanya Chutkan (U.S. District Court photo); booking photo of Donald J. Trump, via Fulton County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office; Superior Court Judge (Ret.) LaDoris Cordell, via CNN.

Although hyperbole may often be the currency of cable news legal commentary, one legal analyst’s assessment that Donald Trump’s legal team made a “stunningly stupid” argument on Monday may not have been much of an exaggeration.

Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell appeared on CNN to recount her thoughts on Monday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, in which Trump attorney John Lauro argued that his client would be unfairly prejudiced by commencing the federal election interference trial against him before April 2026. Lauro argued that the former president could not possibly prepare an effective defense without a hefty delay.

In a filing ahead of Monday’s hearing, Trump’s legal team emphasized the sheer volume of pages presented to them in discovery.

“[I]f we were to print and stack 11.5 million pages of documents, with no gap between pages, at 200 pages per inch, the result would be a tower of paper stretching nearly 5,000 feet into the sky,” the filing said. “That is taller than the Washington Monument, stacked on top of itself eight times, with nearly a million pages to spare.”

The former president’s lawyers also provided an ostensibly helpful visual to the court: a graph of what the documents involved in Trump’s defense would look like next to the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

Image via federal court filing

As Law&Crime previously noted, 3 million of those pages are records directly associated with Trump’s campaign and Trump-related political action committees, and there are millions of duplicative pages from the U.S. Secret Service. More than 5 million pages contain grand jury transcripts and accompanying exhibits that Trump’s legal team already has in its possession. All of the documents are electronically searchable.

Trump’s attorneys rested much of their logic on analogizing the plight of the former commander in chief to that of the defendants in a landmark Supreme Court case from 1932. In Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that nine Black teenagers had been denied due process when Alabama rushed criminal trials against them days after their indictments. The defendants, who became known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” were convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of two white women without ever having consulted with counsel and after only a one-day trial.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice George Sutherland described the circumstances of the boys’ trials:

The defendants, young, ignorant, illiterate, surrounded by hostile sentiment, haled back and forth under guard of soldiers, charged with an atrocious crime regarded with especial horror in the community where they were to be tried, were thus put in peril of their lives within a few moments after counsel for the first time charged with any degree of responsibility began to represent them.

In reversing the boys’ convictions, Sutherland wrote the following — which was quoted by the Trump legal team without any mention of the chasm in circumstances between the Scottsboro Boys and the 45th president of the United States.

The prompt disposition of criminal cases is to be commended and encouraged. 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.

During Monday’s hearing, Chutkan, a Barack Obama appointee and former public defender, noted a few of the glaring differences between Trump’s prosecution and that of the Scottsboro Boys. The Alabama rape trials began, for example, just six days after indictments, and the young Black defendants were met by a large and hostile crowd.

The Scottsboro Boys had not chosen lawyers and “were incapable of adequately making their own defense,” Chutkan noted — not quite the circumstances in which the former president finds himself.

“For any number of reasons, [Trump’s case] is profoundly different from Powell,” Chutkan said during Monday’s hearing. The judge noted that Trump is “represented by a team of zealous, experienced attorneys and has the resources necessary to efficiently review the discovery and investigate,” and said nothing about a shorter timeline constitutes a “haste of the mob.”

Neither cartoon comparisons nor impassioned oral advocacy convinced Chutkan that a significant delay was warranted, and she set a trial date for March 4, 2024.

Cordell noted in her on-air commentary that the stupidity of Trump’s argument did not end with the inapt analogy between his case and the Powell ruling. The retired judge told CNN that in her assessment, Trump’s “absolutely absurd” argument was also a major strategic misstep.

“If you want to alienate a judge in this case, this is exactly what to do,” Cordell said.

Chutkan was born in Kingston, Jamaica and is one of a disproportionately small number of Black women serving as federal judges. Considering the applicable history and Chutkan’s personal background, it would have been unlikely for Chutkan to find the Scottsboro Boys-Trump analogy particularly convincing. Given the risk of alienating the presiding judge, Cordell’s “stunningly stupid” appraisal of the former president’s legal argument seems accurate.

Trump faces 91 criminal indictments across New YorkGeorgia, and Florida. Should the trial begin as Chutkan ordered, the proceedings will likely conclude before the 2024 presidential election.

Brandi Buchman contributed to this report.

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Editor’s Note: This piece was updated to correctly reflect the trial date as March 4, 2024. In an earlier version, the year had been listed as 2023.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos