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‘One of the Most Intelligent Judges’: Defense Attorneys Praise Judge Amit Mehta For Conducting a Fair Seditious Conspiracy Trial

‘One of the Most Intelligent Judges’: Defense Attorneys Praise Judge Amit Mehta For Conducting a Fair Seditious Conspiracy Trial

  • The Indian American presided over the case, considered the biggest test for the justice department in its efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the Jan. 6 attack.

Lawyers for the defendants who were convicted in the historic seditious conspiracy trial of five leaders of far-right militia group Oath Keepers have praised U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta for giving their clients a fair trial. The Indian American judge presided over the first such trial stemming from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, “which caused $2 million in damage and injured more than 140 police officers,” as reported by Bloomberg News. The trial was considered the biggest test for the justice department in its efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on the U.S. Capitol building, as well as on democracy and the rule of law. Vouching for the fairness of the way the trial was conducted by the defense is significant in the highly polarized political atmosphere of the country, reinforcing the credibility of the judicial system in popular perception.

James Lee Bright, an attorney representing Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, told Daily Kos that Mehta is “one of the most intelligent judges” he’s ever practiced in front of for the last 20 years. “It’s been a real pleasure practicing in front of Judge Mehta,” he said, crediting him for “pushing both parties to meet deadlines.” 

At a press conference after the Nov. 29 verdict Bright told reporters he has “absolute respect” for the Justice Department prosecutors and Mehta for conducting a fair trial, according to a CNN report. “The government did a good job, they took us to task,” he said. 

Rhodes and fellow group member Kelly Meggs were found guilty of seditious conspiracy. They are the first people in nearly three decades to be found guilty of what is being described as “a rarely used civil war-era charge.” The three other defendants – Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell – were also convicted of obstructing an official proceeding.

An artist’s sketch of Stewart Rhodes and Judge Amit Mehta at the trial.

Experts believe that the verdict in Rhodes’s case likely will be taken as a bellwether for two remaining Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trials set for December against five other Oath Keepers and leaders of the Proud Boys.

A day before the jury concluded, members reportedly submitted a note to Mehta, asking for clarification over the definition of seditious conspiracy. Mehta then defined the term, a CNN report said. “There is clearly some confusion on their part for how these concepts connect,” Mehta told the court on Nov. 28, per CNN. When “the jury re-entered the courtroom,” Mehta told them that “the seditious conspiracy charge alleges as one of its two objects to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States by force.”

Other Jan. 6 Rulings by Mehta

The same day, in a separate trial, Mehta sentenced Matthew Wood of Reidsville, North Carolina, to three years of probation, including 12 months of home detention, 100 hours of community service and $2,000 restitution for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. According to The Charlotte Observer, federal prosecutors had argued that Wood, who pleaded guilty in May to a series of felony and misdemeanor charges tied to the riot, “should be sent to prison for almost five years” as punishment for his crimes. The report further noted that Wood’s “avoidance of active prison time, especially for a confessed felon, is somewhat rare,” given that only “70 out of the 320 sentences have received home detention.” 

This September, Mehta sentenced Thomas Webster, a retired New York City police officer, to 10 years in prison for several felonies during the Jan. 6 attack. This is so far the longest sentence yet in a case related to the insurrection.

Earlier in February, he issued a ruling rejecting Trump’s claim of “absolute immunity” from the lawsuits, which has resulted in the advancing of multiple lawsuits seeking to hold him accountable for Jan. 6. In a 112-page opinion issued on Feb. 18, Mehta analyzed the former president’s 75-minute speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021, and outlined how the former president could conceivably be responsible for inciting the attack that followed. He said Trump’s own words and conduct in falsely alleging a “stolen” election were not immune on separation-of-powers grounds as they only served his aim of retaining office. 

Who is Amit Mehta?

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The Gujarat-born Mehta was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in December 2014, becoming the first Asia Pacific American appointment there. Early in his tenure on the federal bench, he made waves with a case in which the Federal Trade Commission was seeking to block the proposed merger of the nation’s two largest food distributors, Sysco Corp. and US Foods. 

He made history in October 2021 when he ruled that a former Afghan militant was being held unlawfully at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, making it the first time in 10 years that a detainee won such a case against the U.S. government. Mehta entered a final order and two classified opinions in the case of Asadullah Haroon Gul, who was captured in 2007 by Afghan forces. He was later turned over to the U.S. and remains one of the last 39 detainees at the prison in Cuba.

Mehta began his career in a San Francisco law firm before clerking in the Ninth Circuit Court. From there, he went on to work at the Washington DC-based law firm, Zuckerman Spaeder LLP where he focused on white-collar criminal cases, complex business disputes and appellate advocacy.

He immigrated to the U.S. at age one, with his parents, Priyavadan Mehta, an engineer and Ragini Mehta, a lab technician. He was raised outside of Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in 1993 and graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school in 1997

In October 2020, Mehta was assigned the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Google. The Justice Department on Oct. 23, 2020, sued Google over allegations that its search and advertising empire violated federal antitrust laws. According to a report in The Washington Post at the time, the federal government’s landmark lawsuit caps off a roughly year-long investigation that concluded Google wielded its digital dominance to the detriment of corporate rivals and consumers. 

The complaint contends that Google relied on a mix of special agreements and other problematic business practices to secure an insurmountable lead in online search, capturing the market for nearly 90 percent of all queries in the United States.

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