‘Democracy Is In Trouble,’ Judge Says During First Felony Sentencing For Capitol Attack

Screenshot/The New Yorker
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July 19, 2021 1:21 p.m.

A federal judge on Monday issued the first sentence to a Capitol rioter who’d pleaded guilty to a felony charge, telling Paul Hodgkins he’d be spending eight months in prison as a result of his actions and saying the damage caused by the Capitol attack “will persist in this country for decades.” 

The sentence was lower than the 18-month term prosecutors sought for Hodgkins’ plea — one felony count of obstructing an official proceeding — but more than Hodgkins (pictured above, left) had hoped for. In a sentencing memorandum last week, defense attorney Patrick Leduc invoked Abraham Lincoln and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to assert that sentencing Hodgkins to prison time would amount to “cancelling” him.

U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss’ sentence also included 24 months of supervised release and $2,000 in restitution. 

“Sentencing is always a very challenging task, and the court here had to consider both what I think are the extremely damaging events that occurred that day, but also who Mr. Hodgkins is as an individual,” Moss said at the end of Monday’s hearing. “I tried to strike that balance,” he added.

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Moss noted several factors that worked in the defendant’s favor: He was one of the first defendants to enter a guilty plea, he did not play a leadership role in the attack, and he was not violent during the breach itself. 

But the judge also emphasized the importance of deterring others from attempting to undermine the United States government. 

“Democracy requires the cooperation of the governed,” Moss said. “When a mob is prepared to attack the Capitol, to prevent our elected officials from both parties from performing their constitutional and statutory duty, democracy is in trouble.” 

Hodgkins was one of a small handful of Capitol rioters who made it into the Senate chamber during the attack, appearing with a Trump flag inside the chamber not long after lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence had fled the room. 

“The symbolism of that act is unmistakable,” Moss said. “He was staking a claim on the floor of the United States Senate not with an American flag, but with a flag declaring his loyalty to a single individual over the nation.” 

“In that act, he captured the theft of democracy that we all witnessed that day,” the judge added.

Moss noted that Hodgkins was receiving the first sentence for a felony plea in the Capitol riot case and that there was no existing benchmark for calculating such a penalty — but also that he was sentencing Hodgkins individually, and “not sentencing everyone else who was present there on that day.”  

Midway through his remarks preceding the sentence itself Monday, Moss quoted Margaret Bayard Smith, who wrote after Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration that she’d witnessed “one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness.” 

“The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder,” Smith wrote.

Ronald Reagan made nearly the same point during his first inauguration, the judge said, when he called the orderly transfer of power “nothing less than a miracle.” 

“The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, in which Mr. Hodgkins actively participated, at the very least tarnished that happy history,” Moss said.

“It means that it will be harder today than it was seven months ago for the United States and our diplomats to convince other nations to pursue democracy,” the judge continued. “It means that it will be harder for all of us to convince our children and our grandchildren that democracy stands as the immutable foundation of this nation. It means that we are now all fearful about the next attack in a way that we never were. It makes us question whether our democracy is less secure than what we previously believed just seven months ago.” 

“Those are all enormous harms that were caused by the events that day.”

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