Judge in Donald Trump’s hush-money case denies bias claim, won’t step aside

The judge in Donald Trump’s Manhattan hush-money criminal case has rejected the former president’s demand to step aside

Michael R. Sisak
Monday 14 August 2023 23:39 BST
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The judge in Donald Trump's Manhattan hush-money criminal case has rejected the former president's demand to step aside, denying defense claims that he's biased against the Republican front-runner because he's given cash to Democrats and his daughter is a party consultant.

New York Judge Juan Manuel Merchan acknowledged in a ruling late Friday that he made several small donations to Democratic causes during the 2020 campaign, including $15 to Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden, but said he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial."

Removing himself from the case “would not be in the public interest," Merchan wrote. His six-page ruling echoed a state court ethics panel’s recent opinion that endorsed his continued involvement in the Trump case.

The decision on recusal was entirely up to Merchan. He previously rejected a similar request when Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, was on trial last year for tax fraud.

Trump lawyer Susan Necheles declined comment. The Manhattan district attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case and said in court papers that it wanted Merchan to remain on the case, also declined comment.

Trump's hush-money trial — one of three pending criminal cases against him — is scheduled to start March 25, overlapping with the presidential primary season as he seeks a return to the White House. A federal judge last month denied Trump's request to move the case out of Merchan's state courtroom and into federal court. Trump is appealing the ruling that he failed to meet a high legal bar for changing jurisdiction.

Trump pleaded not guilty in April in Manhattan to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The charges relate to hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign to bury allegations that he had extramarital sexual encounters. He has denied wrongdoing.

Separately, Trump is also charged in federal court in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and impeding investigators and in federal court in Washington, D.C., in connection to efforts to overturn the results of his 2020 election loss in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump’s lawyers wanted Merchan off the case in part because his daughter, Loren, is a political consultant whose firm has worked for some of Trump’s Democratic rivals and because, they contend, he acted inappropriately by involving himself in plea negotiations last year for Trump’s longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg. Merchan said he previously rejected that argument when asked to exit the Trump Organization case.

Trump's lawyers also raised concerns about the political donations, asking Merchan to explain three contributions totaling $35 that were made to Democratic causes in his name during the 2020 election cycle. Merchan, in his ruling, said the “donations at issue are self-evident and require no further clarification” and pointed to the ethics panel’s conclusion that such small-dollar contributions wouldn't require recusal.

“These modest political contributions made more than two years ago cannot reasonably create an impression of bias or favoritism in the case before the judge,” the panel wrote.

Merchan, a state court judge in New York, sought input from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics after Trump’s April 4 arraignment, as news outlets started reporting on his political contributions and Trump — pointing to the daughter's work — complained that he’s “a Trump-hating judge” with a family full of “Trump haters.”

The ethics panel, in its May 4 opinion, concluded that a judge in Merchan's situation “may continue to preside in the matter provided the judge believes he/she can be fair and impartial.”

Trump's lawyers sought Merchan's recusal on May 31, arguing in court papers that the hush-money case is “historic and it is important that the People of the State of New York and this nation have confidence that the jurist who presides over it is impartial."

Matthew Colangelo, a senior counsel to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, countered that Trump’s recusal motion was the latest in a “prolific history of baselessly accusing state and federal judges around the country of bias.”

Merchan’s daughter, Loren, is a political consultant whose firm has worked on campaigns for prominent Democrats including Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Merchan, citing the ethics panel's finding that his daughter's work had no bearing on his impartiality, said in his ruling that Trump's lawyers had “failed to demonstrate that there exists concrete, or even realistic reasons for recusal to be appropriate, much less required on these grounds.”

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Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.

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