In the past couple of weeks, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump went after the federal judge handling two of the cases involving his now-defunct Trump University.
This happened before he gloated Sunday about “being right on radical Islamic terrorism” after the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shootings and then Monday revoked The Washington Post’s press credentials.
His “university” is the defendant in class-action lawsuits filed by students-slash-customers who claim they were bilked out of anywhere from $1,495 to $35,000 when they ponied up expecting to learn his personal secrets of getting rich in real estate. Instead, they say, they got little more than standard boilerplate information. The trial is scheduled for November.
Trump demanded that U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel recuse himself from the case because he’s “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. He trashed Curiel as the judge who released to the public some of Trump U’s internal documents, prompting Mr. Never Above Anything to call Curiel a “judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater.”
Trump’s accusation, like just about everything else he spews, would be ludicrous at every level, in this case from federal courts down to traffic court. Demanding that a judge remove himself from the case because one of the principals doesn’t like his race? I asked retired Stanislaus County Courts Administrator Mike Tozzi if he could recall a time when that happened in this county.
“Nope,” Tozzi replied. That would include zero recollections of Latino defendants demanding a white or African American judge step aside due to race.
Never mind that Curiel was born in Indiana. And being “Mexican” is an issue Trump himself created when he called Latino immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” during campaign speeches and promises to build a giant wall that would keep Mexicans from crossing illegally into the United States. Oh, yeah, and he’ll somehow force Mexico pay for it, too.
Accusing a federal judge of such unethical behavior was just another day in the headlines for the presumptive Republican nominee.
In Trump’s warped little world, he can disparage an entire country and then try to use his own words to condemn a judge who bears a Latino surname. One of his own attorneys, Yahoo News reported, lauded Curiel for setting the trial to start after Trump’s presidential campaign ends in November. Trump knows he can say anything – even attempting to destroy the integrity and reputation of a respected sitting federal judge – because he knows Curiel cannot respond publicly. And if any future courtroom decision by Curiel, no matter how legally sound, doesn’t go Trump’s way?
“See?” Trump will claim. “This proves it. (Curiel is) biased against me.”
I wondered how that mindset would resonate with local Latino-surnamed judges. After all, Latinos represented 44 percent of Stanislaus County’s population in 2014.
“The canons of judicial conduct preclude us from commenting,” Superior Court Judge Ruben Villalobos said. Simply put, sorry, he can’t make a federal case about it. The same rules apply to Superior Court Judge Ricardo Cordova.
So I called attorney Gil Somera, a Stockton-based criminal defense attorney who tries cases both in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and has taught law courses at Humphrey’s College. Attorneys are not bound by the same canons as judges. Somera said never in his 13 years of practicing law has he witnessed anything akin to Trump’s attack on the judge.
“Absolutely not,” Somera said. “There are presumptive challenges (also known as papering, in which either side can nix a judge for varying reasons that can include financial or personal conflicts with a case). But it’s not supposed to be politically motivated.”
Similarly, Modesto civil attorney Aaron Anguilano can’t recall a judge being removed because of his race.
“They’ve never said ‘no’ to a judge because he’s of Mexican heritage,” Anguilano said.
Added Somera, “To say that a (judge) could not ethically resolve a case because of heritage would be an outrage.”
No one does outrage – or stirs the outrage pot against minorities – better than Trump.
“He doesn’t care what he says and he’s allowed to say whatever he wants to say,” Somera said. “If there was an obvious issue where the judge put himself out there and showed biased ethics, I think you’d see the judicial council stepping in.”
That hasn’t happened. And it won’t. Trump can attempt to paint himself as the victim, try the judge in the court of public of opinion, and many of his followers will be more than happy to join in the race baiting.
But the courtroom itself is one piece of real estate where he can’t so easily bloviate.