U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson was under siege and growing impatient.
Heading into last week’s highly anticipated sentencing of Roger Stone, President Donald Trump’s longtime confidant, Jackson faced a torrent of withering criticism from Trump and his conservative allies over her handling of a case they belittled as politically motivated.
Jackson, 65, a Harvard Law School graduate, had endured many epithets. “Obama judge.” “Corrupt.” “Anti-Trump.”
Trump, concerned that Stone would receive a lengthy prison sentence for lying to Congress and witness tampering, had accused Jackson of bias in a Feb. 11 tweet: “Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT? How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!”
This wasn’t the first time Trump had lashed out at a federal judge. To critics, it amounted to an attempt to bully a judge into letting a convicted friend of the president's walk free.
By tradition, U.S. judges don’t respond to personal attacks. But as she prepared to sentence Stone to more than four years in prison last week, Jackson delivered from the bench a powerful defense of an independent judiciary against attempts to delegitimize it.
“The dismay and the disgust with any attempts to interfere with the efforts of prosecutors and members of the judiciary to fulfill their duty should transcend party,” Jackson said.
“Sure, the defense is free to say: 'So what? Who cares?' ” she said. “But, I'll say this: Congress cared. The United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia that prosecuted the case and is still prosecuting the case cared. The jurors who served with integrity under difficult circumstances cared. The American people cared. And I care.”
It’s not very often that a federal judge becomes a household name.
Not that long ago Jackson was little-known outside a small circle of defense lawyers and prosecutors with cases before the federal court in Washington, D.C.
Then the Stone case hit the docket last year, thrusting Jackson into the national spotlight as the presiding judge over one of the most high-profile cases of recent years.
Jackson had already presided over several other cases arising from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. But the yearlong court proceedings against Stone put Jackson smack in the middle of a national story, thanks to Stone's antics in and outside of the courtroom and Trump's running commentary in the background.
"I think she rose to the occasion," said Carl Tobias, a law professor and judicial selection expert at the University of Richmond. "I don't think she invited it. I think she was assigned the case and she did her judicial duty."
Jackson’s career path mirrors those of many successful federal judges. Harvard Law School. Clerk for a federal appellate judge. Six years as a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington. Nearly two decades in private practice, during which she represented prominent clients.
In the 10 years since she was named to the bench by former President Barack Obama, Jackson has earned a reputation as a no-nonsense but fair-minded jurist with a penchant for delivering a tongue-lashing to unrepentant defendants and their lawyers.
In 2013, she sentenced former Democratic Congressman Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the son of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson, to 30 months in prison for misappropriating $750,000 in campaign funds.
In 2016, she rejected the Obama administration’s claim of executive privilege to block records from congressional investigators probing a controversial federal sting operation aimed at Mexican drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tobias said judges on the D.C. district court often rule against the president that appointed them.
“I think they wear that as a badge of honor and they deserve a lot of respect and credit for doing that,” Tobias said.
But in a highly partisan environment where criticism of judges has become fair game, Jackson has had her impartiality called into question.
Trump criticized Jackson after Jackson revoked bail for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and sent him to jail after Manafort tried to influence the testimony of two government witnesses.
The case against Stone tested Jackson's patience and restraint. In February 2019, Jackson imposed a gag order on Stone after Stone posted a picture of Jackson next to a gun’s crosshairs on Instagram. In July, Jackson ordered Stone to stop using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram after she found him in violation of the gag order by posting disparaging comments about the Mueller investigation.
“What am I supposed to do with you,” an exasperated Jackson said to him.
Yet she stopped short of revoking his bail. And even though she had the discretion to impose a seven- to nine-year sentence, she opted for a shorter term, saying it was just and fair.
Jackson delayed imposition of the sentence, pending Stone’s motion for a new trial. But she rejected Stone’s latest motion that she recuse herself from the case, writing that the move “appears to be nothing more than an attempt to use the court’s docket to disseminate a statement for public consumption that has the words ‘judge’ and biased’ in it.”
Trump has continued to take jabs at the case, despite an admonition from Attorney General William Barr to stop meddling in pending criminal cases.
After Jackson warned Trump during a hearing on Tuesday about attacks on a juror in the case, Trump responded by tweeting that the juror "was totally biased, as is the judge."