‘There’s no agenda here’: A look at the judge who is overseeing Trump’s hush money trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — Judge Juan M. Merchan looked across his high-ceilinged courtroom, facing the defendant in a complicated case.

Not the one everyone knows about.

Yes, Merchan could become the first judge ever to oversee a former U.S. president’s criminal trial: Donald Trump’s hush money case. But on a recent morning, the judge was attending to a much less conspicuous cases in Manhattan’s once-weekly Mental Health Court, where selected mentally ill offenders agree to closely monitored treatment in hopes of getting charges dismissed and their lives on track.

As Merchan talked with defendants about their progress, stumbles, jobs, families and even workouts, it was a far cry from the upcoming trial in which Trump will be at the defense table, but the judge also will be in a hot seat.

The ex-president and presumptive Republican nominee has called Merchan a “Trump-hating” judge, and defense lawyers unsuccessfully asked him to exit the case. Merchan received dozens of death threats after Trump slammed him on social media last year.

Ten days before jury selection was to start, Merchan on Friday postponed the trial until at least mid-April because of a last-minute evidence dump. He scheduled a March 25 hearing on next steps.

Merchan wouldn’t talk about the case last week, but allowed that getting ready for the historic trial is “intense.”

He is striving “to make sure that I’ve done everything I could to be prepared and to make sure that we dispense justice,” he said in an interview, emphasizing his confidence in court staffers.

“There’s no agenda here,” he said. “We want to follow the law. We want justice to be done.”

“That’s all we want,” he said.

THE PATH TO TRUMP’S CASE

Born in Colombia, Merchan emigrated as a 6-year-old and grew up in New York. He worked his way through college, graduated from Hofstra University’s law school, and was a state lawyer and Manhattan prosecutor before being appointed a family court judge in 2006. Three years later, he was assigned to a felony trial court, which New York calls a state Supreme Court.

Now 61, he has presided over cases alleging murder, rape and many other crimes: a multimillion-dollar investment fraud, a clubland stabbing, stolen laptops, harassment.

He oversaw trials of three men who parachuted off the rebuilt World Trade Center’s tallest skyscraper and of at least one defendant in a sprawling Social Security disability fraud case against police officers, firefighters and others accused of faking psychological problems to get benefits.

Merchan is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2012 case of Anna Gristina, the “ soccer mom madam ” whose alleged exploits spurred a 2021 Lifetime movie. She now wants to rescind her guilty plea and is suing the judge to try to get some case transcripts unsealed. Lawyers for Merchan have said the sealing was justified.

The spotlight on Merchan grew white-hot in the last three years as he took on cases involving Trump’s company, its former longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg and, eventually, Trump himself.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to doctoring business records to veil a 2016 effort to squelch claims of extramarital affairs, which he denies. Prosecutors say he was trying to protect his first campaign; he has said he is fighting a “fake case” brought to impede his current run.

Trump wasn’t charged in the tax fraud case against his company, the Trump Organization. A jury voted to convict. Merchan imposed a $1.6 million fine, the legal maximum. The company denied wrongdoing and is appealing.

If some might see Merchan’s familiarity with the Trump Organization case as preparation for the hush money trial, the ex-president and his lawyers see a problem.

They have asserted Merchan has “preconceived bias” against Trump, saying the judge strong-armed Weisselberg behind the scenes into taking a plea deal, agreeing to testify in the tax fraud case and serve a five-month jail sentence.

Merchan and prosecutors have disputed the claims. The judge wrote that defense lawyers drew ”misleading” conclusions from an “inaccurate” portrayal of his involvement in Weisselberg’s plea negotiations.

Trump’s lawyers also have pointed out that Merchan’s daughter is a political consultant whose firm has worked for Democrats and the judge donated $35 in 2020 to Democratic causes, including $15 to now-President Joe Biden. A state court ethics panel opined that Merchan could continue on the case. The judge has vouched he can be fair and impartial.

Trump has a history of assailing judges in cases involving his business or administration. He tangled with jurists in person during his recent civil trials over New York state’s claims of business fraud and writer E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault and defamation allegations. Trump denied all the accusations.

Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan presided with stern authority over two jury trials on Carroll’s claims. In the non-jury business fraud trial, state Judge Arthur Engoron at times gave latitude, such as letting lawyers revisit issues he had decided, but at other points pounded his desk in frustration.

Merchan has conducted the criminal court dates so far with a mannerly but firm formality. When one of Trump’s lawyers complained last month that the trial would burden the candidate as he campaigned, Merchan responded: “That’s not a legal argument. Anything else?”

Roger Stavis, a lawyer who testified before Merchan during a jury trial years ago, recalls the judge as self-confident but “not overbearing.”

“He’s in command of his courtroom,” Stavis said. “He won’t be baited, and he won’t be pushed around.”

As for Merchan himself, he says that in his courtroom, “everybody gets treated respectfully, professionally.”

‘A DIFFERENT LENS’

During long trials, Manhattan judges often reserve a day each week for other cases. Merchan is keeping Wednesdays for mental health court, which he has overseen since its 2011 start, and a similar veterans’ docket he took on in 2019.

The mental health court currently handles nearly 70 cases while budgeted for 50 a year, coordinator Amber Petitt-Cifarelli said. About 100 participants successfully finished between 2014 and 2021, while 190 were accepted, according to a report from Manhattan prosecutors.

“We help a lot of people, but it’s hard work. … You get really invested in people’s lives,” Merchan said, adding that it lets him “see people through a different lens” than he did when presiding only over criminal cases.

Last week, Merchan offered encouragement to a newcomer who teared up while describing how mental illness ended his full-scholarship college studies. He urged one assault defendant not to lose patience with residential treatment rules and congratulated another on passing her real estate class final. He handed progress certificates to some, including a residential treatment patient approved for an apartment.

It wasn’t all good news. Merchan issued a warrant for someone who didn’t return to a residential program after a medical visit. A robbery defendant apologized for having smoked K2, his first misstep in a year of court-supervised treatment.

When Merchan asked what happened, the man said he had been depressed because his mom and siblings were far away, but he later talked with his counselor about handling such feelings.

“So we’re not going to harp on that situation that happened. Because you’ve earned good faith,” Merchan decided, noting the man’s honesty. He remains on course for a progress certificate if he avoids further slips.

Another man was making headway toward quitting marijuana, avoiding old hangouts and getting a library card to make reading a new pastime.

“You’ve got this one issue, and you’re working through it,” Merchan told him. “I’m very proud of you.”

___

Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed.



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