Juan Merchan: Who is the New York judge presiding over Trump’s case?

Another unprecedented moment in the life and times of Donald Trump has arrived.

Just over a year after he made history by becoming the first current or former US president ever to be indicted on criminal charges, he is back in a Manhattan courtroom for the first day of his trial in the so-called hush-money case over payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

His first court appearance in the case was his arraignment on 4 April 2023. He surrendered to New York authorities and was arrested and charged with 34 felonies for falsifying business records during the 2016 race for the White House.

The former president pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Mr Trump subsequently appeared by video on 23 May 2023 so that the judge could personally instruct him about the terms of the protective order issued in the case.

The former president was back in court in person on 15 February this year when Judge Merchan set an initial trial date and threw out an attempt to dismiss the case, and again on 25 March at which his legal team failed to convince the judge that the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s Office mishandled potential evidence and a new trial date was set.

Here’s what you need to know about Judge Juan Merchan who is presiding over the case.

What we know about Judge Merchan

Judge Merchan is an acting justice with the New York State Supreme Court and has held the position since 2009.

The Colombian native moved to the US as a child and grew up in Queens, New York — also the birthplace of Mr Trump.

He studied at Baruch College and then Hofstra University School of Law before beginning his legal career as a Manhattan assistant district attorney in 1994.

After that, he worked in the State Attorney General’s office and was then appointed to the Bronx Family Court bench in 2006 – before joining the state’s highest court three years later.

This isn’t the judge’s first time overseeing a case involving Mr Trump.

Judge Merchan presided over both the tax fraud trial of the Trump Organization and the trial of the organisation’s longtime CFO Allen Weisselberg in 2022.

In November of that year, Weisselberg was sentenced to five months in prison and five years post-release supervision after pleading guilty to tax fraud charges.

At his sentencing, Judge Merchan slammed Weisselberg for his “offensive” greed and said that he would have handed down a harsher sentence if he hadn’t made an agreement as part of a plea.

“Had I not made the promise, I would be imposing a sentence much greater than that,” he said.

Court sketch of Judge Juan Merchan during deliberations in the Trump Organization’s criminal tax trial (REUTERS)

In the Trump Organization’s trial, the judge hit the company with the highest possible fine at its sentencing in January of this year.

Two subsidiaries of the Trump Organization – Trump Corp. and Trump Payroll Corp. — were convicted on 17 counts, including conspiracy, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records, for running a 15-year tax fraud scheme.

Prosecutors had asked the judge to hand down the highest possible fines under the law.

Judge Merchan agreed, fining the entities $1.6m in total.

Besides these cases with ties to Mr Trump, the judge has also dealt with other high-profile cases.

In 2012, the judge presided over the case known as the “Soccer mom madam” where Anna Gristina pleaded guilty to charges of running a Manhattan call girl ring for millionaires.

Trump’s attacks on Judge Merchan

At the arraignment hearing on 4 April, Judge Merchan warned Mr Trump in no uncertain terms to rein in his traditional fiery posts on social media.

“Please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest,” he told both sides of the case, adding that he would be willing to consider a gag order in future if necessary to protect the trial process.

But hours later, in a televised address from his Florida mansion of Mar-a-Lago, Mr Trump was accusing the judge of having a “Trump-hating family” with ties to Kamala Harris.

Those claims were echoed by his children Don Jr and Eric, who tweeted links to Breitbart News and The Gateway Pundit focusing on the Democrat-leaning political activities of Judge Merchan’s 34-year-old daughter Loren Merchan. Critics accused them of attempting to intimidate the judge and his family.

“I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family, whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris, and now receives money from the Biden-Harris campaign – and a lot of it,” Mr Trump said.

Eric Trump claimed in a now-deleted tweet that “they are all hand-picked. It is all pre-arranged”, while Don Jr called it a “hand-picked show trial”.

According to ABC News, Ms Merchan did indeed work for Ms Harris’ presidential campaign in 2019, and is now president of a progressive fundraising agency that reportedly took in more than $2m from the Biden campaign.

Federal Election Commission records also show a Juan Merchan, whose occupation is listed as “judge”, donating a total of $35 to the Democrat fundraising organisation ActBlue in 2020, with one donation described as “earmarked for ‘STOP REPUBLICANS’”.

Commentators were sharply divided about the Trump family’s rhetoric, with some arguing that Ms Merchan’s work was a legitimate topic of debate.

However, Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker for The Washington Post, claimed that the points about Ms Merchan were “totally irrelevant and obviously intended to intimidate”.

CNN correspondent John King said: “It is not relevant. She’s an individual adult… they try to intimidate, they attack, and they put at risk people who should not be dragged into this process…

“Donald Trump is presumed innocent. If he can beat these charges, good for him. The judge’s daughter has nothing to do with this, but this is what [the Trump family] do. This is how they have taken this country off the rails and outside the norms.”

Former Trump aide Alyssa Farah Griffin was also unimpressed, calling the ex-president’s remarks “disgraceful”.

Stephen Gillers, a judicial ethics expert at New York University, told PolitiFact that the political views of a judge’s children were not considered a basis for the judge to recuse themselves.

Gag orders and attempts to delay

Mr Trump’s attacks on Judge Merchan have continued on his social media platform Truth Social. In March of this year, the former president was given a limited gag order restricting him from making any public statements about witnesses, jurors, lawyers, court staff and their families.

The judge’s order, issued hours after Mr Trump lashed out at his daughter on his Truth Social, blocked the former president from making any such statements “made with the intent to materially interfere” with any work in the case.

Manhattan DA Mr Bragg requested the limited gag order, citing Mr Trump’s “long history” of “inflammatory” remarks aimed at the prosecutors, judges, court staff and others wrapped up in his mountain of criminal and civil litigation.

At the beginning of April, Judge Merchan agreed to tighten the gage order due to the former president’s “vitriolic” attacks on his family. He said that Mr Trump’s statements represented a “very real” threat to the integrity of the trial.

Mr Bragg had asked the judge to extend his gag order to cover court officers’ families due to Mr Trump’s “extreme and deliberate provocations”. Days later, the former president tested its limits by disparaging two key witnesses, calling Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen “two sleaze bags”.

In his failed attempts to delay the trial and have Judge Merchan removed from the case, Mr Trump sued the judge just days before the trial was set to begin — his lawyers also attempted to move the case out of Manhattan in the hope of finding a more favourable jury. New York appeals court judges dismissed all of these attempts.

The case against the former president will now be played out in court before a jury over six weeks, with the world watching.

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