O.C. Judge David Carter Takes on National Cases

The longtime judge, already well known in Orange County, became one of the most famous jurists in the U.S. over the past year after taking on a case involving former President Donald Trump’s election lawyer and the Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol.
Photo courtesy of United States District Court, Central District of California.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is famous in the local legal community for his fierce patriotism and dedication to justice, but his fame reached new heights when he ruled in March 2022 that John Eastman, a former longtime professor at Chapman University School of Law, “more likely than not” committed two federal crimes with then-President Trump while challenging the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

The issue was in Carter’s hands because Eastman sued to stop the Jan. 6 Committee from accessing his Chapman University email account. The private university in Orange planned to give the committee all the information requested, citing the fact that Eastman’s email account was property of the university, but Carter halted the disclosure at Eastman’s request.

But in two separate ensuing orders, Carter determined two key documents that were legally covered by attorney-client privilege review should still be released to the committee because they were written to further crimes the judge said Eastman and Trump likely committed: obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The orders attracted widespread attention, particularly the first on March 28, in which Carter called Trump and Eastman’s actions “a coup in search of a legal theory” and said he feared another Jan. 6 “if the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible.” Another order on June 7 released more emails to the committee, including several that revealed Eastman’s communications with Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Committee members have quoted his orders many times, with then-Rep. Liz Cheney saying in her opening statement for the committee’s first prime-time meeting on June 9: “Every American should read what this federal judge has written.” Cheney later quoted Carter’s conclusion that Trump and Eastman had been repeatedly told by credible sources “that there was no evidence of election fraud.”

“The court’s opinion methodically documents each of the principal reasons for that conclusion, and I would urge all those watching to read it,” Cheney said.

Carter’s last ruling in October made another splash. He concluded that Trump knowingly pushed false information about voter fraud in Fulton County, Georgia, to the public. And in a federal court filing, Carter said Trump signed a statement alleging fraud even after he was told the information was false.

The California State Bar in January filed 11 misconduct charges against Eastman that largely reflect Carter’s rulings. The charges could lead to Eastman’s disbarment.

Meanwhile, Carter continues to work a full caseload at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in Santa Ana while also maintaining a busy international travel schedule. He regularly hosts judiciary and counterterrorism training sessions in other countries through the U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Justice, and United Nations, and he serves as a special visiting judge in the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States-affiliated commonwealth near Guam.

Carter spent months in a military hospital in Guam in 1968 after he was badly injured in the Battle of Khe Sanh as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War. He returned home and earned a law degree from UCLA, then spent nearly 30 years prosecuting homicides and presiding over cases in superior court before President Bill Clinton nominated him to the federal bench in October 1998. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 1986, and he’s long had the nickname “King David” and a reputation for a hands-on, unorthodox approach. He’s also mentored many prominent judges and prosecutors in Orange County, including Thomas Goethals, who is a justice with the California Court of Appeals’ 4th District, Division 3. “From the day I first met Judge Carter nearly 50 years ago when we were both deputy district attorneys, I have known him to be a fierce proponent of the rule of law,” Goethals says of the longtime Laguna Beach resident. “As a result, especially during his lengthy judicial career, he has been regarded as a leader of the Orange County legal community. I don’t believe anyone is more respected in these parts than Dave Carter.”

To read more stories from our Law issue, check these out:

Law and Order in O.C.: Six Nationally Known Cases

Criminal Justice Clinic at UC Irvine Law School Hits Stride

Chatting With Cofounder of Veterans Legal Institute