Donald Trump's questioning the impartiality of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel due to his Hispanic heritage has drawn harsh criticism and rebuke from the legal community. Curiel is currently presiding over the fraud lawsuit involving Trump University, which ceased operations in 2010. Trump, presumed to be the Republican nominee for president, criticized a number of Curiel's unfavorable rulings as being the result of a conflict of interest with Trump's stringent policies towards Mexico and immigration. Trump was criticized by several bar associations of undermining the judicial process by criticizing a judge in a pending lawsuit while being a candidate for the President of the United States.
The Trump University Lawsuits
Trump filed a counterclaim against Makaeff for defamation, claiming that she was untruthful and had caused damages in excess of $1 million to the school. Makaeff countered by claiming to the court that Trump initiated the lawsuit to intimidate her and invoked California's protective statute, known as "SLAPP" (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). While Judge Curiel originally ruled in favor of Trump regarding a burden of proof issue regarding defamation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. After further deliberation, Judge Curiel dismissed Trump's defamation claim entirely and was ordered to reimburse Makaeff for $798,000 in damages. Ultimately Makaeff withdrew as lead plaintiff in the class action and another plaintiff - Sonny Low - was substituted in her place.
Filed in 2013, Cohen v. Trump is a national class action lawsuit involving purchasers of Trump University "Live Events". Trump's investment secrets were to be taught and include his “hand-picked” professors leading 3-day seminars and mentorships. But the plaintiffs claimed that these secrets weren't shared, Trump didn't contribute in any meaningful way to the curriculum and he played no part in actually selecting any of the instructors. Violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act were alleged, better known as "RICO". In 2014, Judge Curiel certified the "class" of plaintiffs so that they could begin the "class action" lawsuit based upon fraud.
Judge Curiel is Accused of Being Biased
After Judge Curiel certified the class in the Cohen case in 2014, Trump University attorney, Alan Garten, requested that the judge recuse himself (volunteer to step away from the case) as a result of "animosity toward Mr. Trump and his views." This began a series of negative comments made by Trump about Curiel. On May 31, 2016 Judge Curiel unsealed an embarrassing set of documents which included the Trump University playbook on closing clients. Trump claimed shortly after at a presidential rally that the judge was a "hater of Donald Trump" and "a total disgrace." Just a few days later on a CBS Face the Nation interview, Trump implied that his commitment to building a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States resulted in Judge Curiel unfairly ruling against him in lawsuits in which he was involved:
"He is a member of a club or society, very strongly pro-Mexican, which is all fine. But I say he's got bias. I want to build a wall... But just so you understand, this judge has treated me very unfairly, he's treated me in a hostile manner. And there's something going on."
Bar Associations Unite in Criticizing Trump's Bias Claims
Litigants in a lawsuit have a First Amendment right to express their opinions about a case. This includes the criticism of the judge sitting on the bench of pending litigation, provided such comments don't disrupt the courtroom.
While several Hispanic bar associations issued harsh criticism concerning Trumps bias accusations due to Judge Curiel's ethnicity, other attorneys were even more concerned the appearance of impropriety. Paulette Brown, president of the American Bar Association, issued a statement, which concisely summarizes the concern for the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches of government:
“While publicly criticizing judicial decisions is every person’s constitutional right, levying personal criticism at an individual judge and suggesting punitive action against that judge for lawfully made decisions crosses the line of propriety and risks undermining judicial independence. Anyone running for the highest office in the land should understand that the independence of the judiciary is essential for an effective and orderly government and justice system.”
The ABA's concern is that comments castigating a judge by the potential President of the United States could be viewed as an attempt to exert undue influence over the judge. As a result, a continued series of such attacks could be viewed as an attempt to undermine the justice system. While Trump is still the presumed nominee, his statements seem to have placed members of the Republican party in an awkward position.
- Legal Practice:
- Government - Election & Political Law
- US Federal
- Court of Law:
- U.S. Court of Federal Claims