Friday, June 3, 2016

Trump’s personal, racially tinged attacks on federal judge alarm legal experts

update: Wall Street Journal

Donald Trump on Thursday escalated his attacks on the federal judge presiding over civil fraud lawsuits against Trump University, amid criticism from legal observers who say the presumptive GOP presidential nominee’s comments are an unusual affront on an independent judiciary.

In an interview, Mr. Trump said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of his campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said.

The New York businessman also alleged the judge was a former colleague and friend of one of the Trump University plaintiffs’ lawyers. The judge and the lawyer once worked together as federal prosecutors, but the lawyer, Jason Forge, in an interview said he had never seen the judge socially.

“Neither Judge Curiel’s ethnicity nor the fact that we crossed paths as prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office well over a decade ago is to blame” for Mr. Trump’s actions, said Mr. Forge, who is with the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.[...]

For judges, being criticized for rulings comes with the territory, but court watchers say it is a degree far different when the critic could win the nation’s highest office, is involved in a pending case and references the judge's ethnicity.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Burbank said it was “absolute nonsense” that the judge shouldn’t be able to preside over the case because of his ethnicity.

“If this continues, I would hope that some prominent federal judges would set Mr. Trump straight on what’s appropriate and what’s not in our democracy,” Mr. Burbank said.

Ronald Rotunda, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., noted that whatever Mr. Trump’s grievances, his lawyers haven’t filed any motion asking for the case to be reassigned to a different judge. If Mr. Trump has a problem with the judge, “that’s the legitimate way” to register a complaint, he said.[...]

The GOP candidate’s comments follow a San Diego speech last week in which he called the judge “a hater of Donald Trump” and “a total disgrace,” while referencing the judge’s ethnicity.[...]

Legal experts agreed that defendants have the First Amendment freedom to express opinions about a judge hearing their case—as long as they aren’t disruptive in the courtroom.

“It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in a 1941 Supreme Court decision that threw out contempt convictions of a newspaper publisher and a labor leader for speaking out on pending litigation.[...]

Washington Post

Donald Trump’s highly personal, racially tinged attacks on a federal judge overseeing a pair of lawsuits against him have set off a wave of alarm among legal experts, who worry that the ­Republican presidential candidate’s vendetta signals a remarkable disregard for judicial independence.

That attitude, many argue, could carry constitutional implications if Trump becomes president.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is handling two class-action lawsuits against Trump University in San Diego, has emerged as a central target for Trump and his supporters in recent weeks. The enmity only escalated after Curiel ordered the release of embarrassing internal documents detailing predatory marketing practices at the for-profit educational venture; that case is set to go to trial after the November election.

“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater,” Trump said at a campaign rally in San Diego, adding that he believed the Indiana-born judge was “Mexican.”

He also suggested taking action against the judge after the election: “They ought to look into Judge Curiel, because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace. Okay? But we will come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I am president and come back and do a civil case? Where everybody likes it. Okay. This is called life, folks.”

The courtroom proceedings come with high stakes for Trump, whose likely tough ­general-election fight against Hillary Clinton will leave him open to intense scrutiny of his character, business practices and temperament. Clinton said Wednesday that the Trump University allegations are “just more evidence that Donald Trump himself is a fraud.”

Trump’s strikingly personal attacks on Curiel are highly unusual and have prompted questions about how he would react to adverse judicial decisions should he become president. Trump’s remarks also stand out because he has a personal financial stake in the case. [...]

One of Trump’s earlier jeremiads came in February, when he told Fox News that Curiel was biased against him because of his controversial immigration comments and proposals, including his promises to build a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and deport 11 million illegal immigrants.

“I think it has to do with perhaps the fact that I’m very, very strong on the border,” Trump said then. “Now, he is Hispanic, I believe. He is a very hostile judge to me.”[...]

As part of the ongoing class-action lawsuit against Trump University that he is overseeing, Curiel ordered the release of internal documents that showed Trump played a key role in the marketing for the business and how staff members were guided to push customers to purchase expensive follow-ups costing up to $35,000 after taking free introductory courses.

The order came in response to a request by The Washington Post, which argued that Trump’s presidential bid made the documents a matter of public interest. In the order, Curiel said that Trump had “placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.”

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