Who is Juan Merchan, the NY judge handling Trump’s case?

Apr 3, 2023, 11:39 AM

Pedestrians stand outside Manhattan Criminal Court as media and security amass nearby, Monday, Apri...

Pedestrians stand outside Manhattan Criminal Court as media and security amass nearby, Monday, April 3, 2023, in New York. Former President Donald Trump is expected to travel to New York to face charges related to hush money payments. Trump is facing multiple charges of falsifying business records, including at least one felony offense, in the indictment handed up by a Manhattan grand jury. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — His caseload has featured charges against former President Donald Trump’s company and some of Trump’s closest associates in business and politics.

Now Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is poised to take the historic hush-money prosecution of Trump himself.

Merchan, a former prosecutor with 16 years on the bench, is expected to preside Tuesday over the unprecedented charges arising from a grand jury investigation into payments made during his 2016 campaign to bury allegations that he had extramarital sexual encounters.

Trump, who is running for the White House again, says he’s “completely innocent” and has called the case a “political persecution.” He has also seized on Merchan’s involvement.

The judge “HATES ME,” Trump railed on his social media platform.

For any jurist, it would be a legacy-shaping case. And a crucible.

“There’s a lot of pressure here because this is a novelty,” said Patricia Brown Holmes, a former state court judge in Illinois, who is now in private practice in Chicago.

As a judge, “you have to do it right. It has to be fair, the public has to know it’s fair, and then the outcome is the outcome,” she said. “You want to make sure that you are staying away from all the politics, because it is only about the law.”

If politics make for one headache, another is balancing the need for openness against courtroom security for the former president and others, said Geoffrey Puryear, a former state court judge in Texas.

“It’s a logistical nightmare, from a judge’s perspective,” said Puryear, now a defense lawyer in Lubbock.

Merchan did not respond to a message seeking comment sent through court officials.

He got Trump’s case because of a rotation in which judges are assigned to oversee grand juries and any cases that arise from them, according to the court system. Merchan also often handles financial cases.

The Colombian-born Merchan, 60, emigrated as a 6-year-old and grew up in New York City. The first member of his family to go to college, he worked his way through school and went on to earn a law degree from Hofstra University in 1994.

He was a Manhattan prosecutor and worked in the state attorney general’s office before then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed him as a family court judge in 2006.

Three years later, Merchan was assigned to a trial court called the Supreme Court in New York. His particular duties now include overseeing a Manhattan mental health court where some defendants get a chance to resolve their cases with treatment and supervision, a program he views as a success story.

Like a lot of New York judges, he’s had experience with headline-making stories.

After skydivers were convicted of misdemeanors for leaping from the World Trade Center’s now-signature tower while it was under construction in 2013, Merchan sentenced them to community service, saying they had ” sullied the memories of those who jumped on 9/11 not for sport but because they had to.”

Merchan also oversaw the real-life case underlying the 2021 Lifetime movie “Soccer Mom Madam,” about a suburban mother with a secret sideline running a high-end Manhattan escort service. The woman, Anna Gristina, now wants to unwind her 2012 guilty plea.

If those cases put Merchan in the public eye, the last two years trained a Trump-orbiting telescope on his courtroom.

First came the tax fraud case against Trump’s company and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg.

Merchan was heavily involved in negotiations that led to Weisselberg’s 2022 guilty plea for skirting taxes on big-dollar job perks, including Manhattan apartments and school tuition. Under the deal, Weisselberg got a five-month jail sentence in exchange for agreeing to testify against the company.

After hearing Weisselberg’s testimony at trial, Merchan said he wished he could impose a tougher penalty. He was especially appalled that Weisselberg’s wife got a one-time $6,000 payment for a no-show job to qualify for Social Security benefits, even as her husband made big money.

“So many Americans work so hard with the hopes that they may someday benefit from their contributions to Social Security,” the judge observed. Nonetheless, he kept his sentencing promise.

Nicholas Gravante, who represented Weisselberg in the plea negotiations, said Merchan was “a real listener, well-prepared, always accessible, and a man who kept his word.”

“He was mindful of the role my colleagues and I played as advocates, treating us with the utmost respect both in open court and behind closed doors,” Gravante recalled.

The Trump Organization went to trial, imposed a $1.6 million fine — the legal maximum.

Trump himself was not charged in that case. But when it came time for closing arguments, Merchan let prosecutors claim that Trump knew about the tax-cheating maneuvers. The judge said it was “only fair” because the defense summation had mentioned Trump repeatedly. The defense sought a mistrial over the issue; Merchan said no.

Merchan said he wanted to keep politics out of the trial, which he conducted with a largely even-tempered and kindly tone.

He got annoyed when the Trump Organization’s lawyers sought to introduce new evidence late in the trial, ultimately allowing them to do so in a limited fashion. After the verdict, it emerged that Merchan had secretly held the company in contempt of court for “willfully disobeying” four grand jury subpoenas and three court orders.

Separately, former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon is on Merchan’s docket. Charged with duping donors who gave money to build a southern U.S. border wall, Bannon has presidential pardon from Trump truncated a similar federal prosecution.

Trump has a history of questioning judges’ legitimacy or impartiality in cases involving his business or administration. While he was a candidate trumpeting his planned border wall, he pointed to an Indiana-born federal judge’s “Mexican heritage” to suggest he couldn’t fairly handle a lawsuit against the now-defunct Trump University.

As president, Trump referred to another federal jurist as a “so-called judge” after he ruled against Trump’s initial travel ban affecting seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Trump has already gone on the offensive against Merchan, claiming he “railroaded” Weisselberg into a plea and acted “viciously” in the Trump Organization case.

For any judge, criticism can come with the job. But jurists need to focus on their courtrooms, not the court of public opinion, Holmes noted.

“You’re not the center of attention. The evidence is the center of attention,” she said.

National News

Natalie R. Coles, vice president & chief development officer at Wilberforce University, poses on th...

Associated Press

US companies, nudged by Black employees, have stepped up donations to HBCUs

Natalie Coles will never forget receiving an unexpected phone call in 2020. On the line was Virginia-based Dominion Energy, offering to give money to Wilberforce University, the small historically Black college where she is in charge of fundraising. The company’s $500,000 donation went in part toward laptops and hot spots for students when the pandemic […]

22 hours ago

FILE - This booking photo provided by the Clay County, Mo., Sheriff's Office shows Andrew Lester. L...

Associated Press

Judge agrees to seal court documents in Ralph Yarl shooting; suspect to be in court

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas City man accused of shooting a Black teenager who mistakenly came to his door last month is scheduled to be back in court Thursday, days after a judge ruled that court documents in the case will be sealed and kept from the public. The hearing for 84-year-old Andrew Lester […]

22 hours ago

FILE - Susana Lujano, left, a dreamer from Mexico who lives in Houston, joins other activists to ra...

Associated Press

Revised DACA program to be debated before Texas judge who previously ruled against it

HOUSTON (AP) — A revised version of a federal policy that prevents the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children is set to be debated Thursday before a federal judge who previously ruled the program illegal. Attorneys representing the nine states that have sued to end the Deferred Action […]

22 hours ago

FILE - Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that lega...

Associated Press

LGBTQ+ Pride month kicks off with protests, parades, parties

NEW YORK (AP) — The start of June marks the beginning of Pride month around the U.S. and some parts of the world, a season to celebrate the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ communities and to protest against recent attacks on hard-won civil rights gains. This year’s Pride takes place in a contentious political climate […]

22 hours ago

Associated Press

After sailing though House on bipartisan vote, Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal now goes to Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veering away from a default crisis, the House overwhelmingly approved a debt ceiling and budget cuts package, sending the deal that President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated to the Senate for swift passage in a matter of days, before a fast-approaching deadline. The hard-fought compromise pleased few, but lawmakers assessed […]

22 hours ago

FILE - A statue of Walt Disney and Micky Mouse stands in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magi...

Associated Press

LGBTQ+ people flock to Florida for Gay Days festival

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people are flocking to central Florida this weekend to go on theme park rides, mingle with costumed performers, dance at all-night parties and lounge poolside at hotels during Gay Days, a decades-long tradition. Even though Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have championed a slew of […]

22 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Who is Juan Merchan, the NY judge handling Trump’s case?