Donald Trump inveighs against federal judge hearing Trump U. case

Last night, before a convention center filled with his followers in San Diego, presidential candidate Donald Trump chose to launch a lengthy diatribe against the local federal judge hearing the case against his Trump University. Trump said Judge Gonzalo Curiel, of the Southern District of California, should recuse himself, but cited no reasons for why other than that he had been appointed by Obama and had repeatedly ruled against Trump’s lawyers.

In his rambling remarks, Trump also referred to Judge Curiel as “Mexican”: the jurist, previously the chief federal prosecutor for drug cases in southern California, was born in Indiana. Stoking by repetition, as his crowd of thousands booed, Trump called the federal judge “a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater,” and said he should be placed under investigation by the court system. I wonder whether anyone will be shocked if the judge requests personal protection for himself and his family as the trial proceeds.

Obama’s 2010 State of the Union remarks railing at the Justices of the Supreme Court in their presence regarding Citizens United were bad. This is far worse: the case is still in progress, Trump is a party, and the attack is on a single judge who will now find his task of ensuring a fair trial complicated. Trump, who speaks regularly around the country, chose to unleash the diatribe in the locality where the judge and others who will participate in the case, such as jurors, work and live. [More: David Post]

Law professor Josh Blackman, active in the Federalist Society, writes as follows:

His jaw-dropping comments reflect an utter ignorance about what judges do, and amounts to a dangerous attacks on the fairness of our court system. Whatever negligible good will he built up by nominating a list of solid potential nominees to the Supreme Court was squandered with this scurrilous attack. Those who defended his selection process should immediately rebuke him for these baseless insults….

I am speechless. Absolutely, and totally speechless. I was highly critical of President Obama’s attacks on the Court. I cringe to think what will happen when the Supreme Court rules against [Trump].

This might be a good time to catch up, if you haven’t, on the legal saga of Trump University, which I’ve been following for more than a year (when I first looked into it as part of my research into the work of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman). Some coverage: Jillian Kay Melchior/NRO last July, Emma Brown/Washington Post last September, Ian Tuttle/NRO in February, Roger Parloff/Fortune, Joe Mullin and Jonathan Kaminsky/ArsTechnica. In the San Diego proceedings, one law firm ranged against Trump is Robbins Geller, descendant of convicted class-actioneer Bill Lerach’s Lerach Coughlin, and the subject of some less than flattering coverage in these columns over the years.


  • Trump is a fighter, all right, but his weapon is the lawsuit, not the gun. I can’t see that the judge would need guards. I could easily see Trump getting found in contempt and given a large fine and/or a few days in jail, either at the hands of Judge Curiel or the Supreme Court.

    • I don’t think any apprehension of physical unsafety would relate to Trump personally, but to others. Many persons seen as enemies to the Trump cause receive death threats, both privately and by way of publicly visible social media such as Twitter.

  • It was a stupid thing for Trump to say. If you are really surprised about that, I have a bridge you’ll be interested in purchasing.

    That said, regardless of the fact that he is seeking public office and however prominent he may be, Trump remains a private citizen. There is no equivalence between Obama, as president of the US, using an official function (SOTU) to criticize judges he thinks erred and a private citizen doing so.

    It seems to me that entering into office is the dividing line. Until you do, you are entirely free to make a fool of yourself in this particular fashion.

    • In fact, accession to office is not the only dividing line worth noticing; persons who seek public office, and have advanced much of the way toward that goal, are mere private citizens for some purposes (Trump cannot be impeached) but not others (he gets Secret Service protection, will have access to secret intelligence briefings, etc.). The main *legal* consequence that might attach to his tirade, at least the one that occurs offhand, is that Judge Curiel might hold him in contempt exactly as he would any other private litigant. Other than that, as a legal matter, Trump is “entirely free to make a fool of [himself] in this particular fashion,” and the rest of us are entirely free to make clear exactly what we think of his conduct.

  • Update: acknowledging that Trump “has placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue,” Judge Curiel has now granted a motion making public some internal Trump University customer-management handbooks that the defense had sought to keep under seal. He noted that one of the handbooks had already been published.

    • Maybe I don’t understand, but how does criticism of the court lead to having files unsealed? That feels like revenge on the part of the judge.

      • It should not be assumed, absent some other indication, that the judge’s ruling came in response to Trump’s speech. As I understand it from the reporting, the ruling came in response to a Washington Post motion to make the materials public, a request that was pending (and may already have been decided by the judge but not announced) before Trump’s speech.

        • I assumed because I read this in the Politico link:

          Curiel said in his order Friday that Trump’s presidential campaign and his criticism of the court were reasons to overrule his objections to the release of so-called “Playbooks” describing Trump University’s operations.”

          The order itself says:

          Subsequently, Defendant became the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race, and has placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.

          So I don’t think it’s unfair to raise the question.

          • No, it’s not unfair, in fact as you point out Politico’s reporter appears to have drawn some sort of inference along those lines. Still, as I see it, by doing so the reporter was jumping to conclusions. The judge’s ruling (which followed a hearing held on Friday, which would place it before Trump’s speech unless it was a very late-night proceeding) marches through the relevant Ninth Circuit law on making litigants’ documents public, which was already highly tilted toward public access as against litigant privacy and recently became even more so. For reasons the ruling recites, that very liberal Ninth Circuit standard gives the public access claim a lot of traction under the circumstances of this case (in which, for example, the relevant trade secrets are of a defunct business with no visible prospects of revival).

            As the Washington Post had also argued in its access motion, the Ninth Circuit’s standard also includes consideration of “whether a party benefiting from the order of confidentiality is a public entity or official; and (7) whether the case involves issues important to the public.” So in itself it is anything but strange that Judge Curiel would consider that issue in the balancing. What the judge does not say is whether the balance already weighed adequately in favor of the Post’s request anyway — my guess from his recital is that it did — or whether Trump shot himself in the foot with his remarks by undercutting his own possible claim that the proceedings were not of general interest to the public. The ruling’s wording doesn’t rule out that second reading, but even if it is right, “Trump’s outburst worked to undercut one of his own arguments” is a different proposition from “the judge ruled against him as revenge.”

          • I would agree, but I feel the judge left himself open to the “revenge” argument by including the “integrity of these court proceedings” sentence in the opinion. It seems there were ample grounds to release the documents anyway, so why give angry Trump supporters further reason to believe the process is unfair? Not that such angry supporters are likely to care much for logic given the frivolous nature of the arguments against Judge Curiel.

  • A judge is a public official, right? So why in the world would an out of court statement by a non-lawyer impugning the integrity of the judge be contumnacious? I can see gag orders to preserve fair trials in criminal cases (although these are abused), but muzzling a litigant?

    • Who’s muzzling Trump? He said what he said (actually he made similar comments back in February too) and nobody has punished him or stopped him from making his comments. However, for a party to attack a federal judge on national television in the middle of a ongoing litigation simply because of the President who appointed the judge and the judge’s ethnicity goes against the general operating principles of the legal system. It is one thing to point out specific disagreements with the rulings or conduct of the judge (though this is generally best done through an appeal), but to impugn the judge’s integrity by ascribing a racial motive to his rulings, without any evidence, is inappropriate.

      As Trump is running for public office, the public can, and should, take note of his behavior here.

      • mx, someone had written:

        “The main *legal* consequence that might attach to his tirade, at least the one that occurs offhand, is that Judge Curiel might hold him in contempt exactly as he would any other private litigant.”

        If the contempt rules allow Judge Curiel to find Trump in contempt for his comments, then that would be “muzzling.”

        I generally agree with your other points, although I think that it is fair to point out that Clinton appellate judges seem to be overrepresented when it comes to SCOTUS handing out summary per curiam reversals.

  • […] Ira Stoll recalls a verse from Exodus — translated in the New Berkeley Version of the Christian Bible as “Heap no abuse upon judges” — and notes that the temptation to excoriate judges over unwelcome rulings knows no place or era. Ken White at Popehat pens an explainer, “Is there anything unusual about Judge Curiel’s orders in the Trump University case?” Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales kinda-sorta defends the propriety of litigants’ blasting judges, though in a left-handed way (“if I were a litigant who was concerned about the judge’s impartiality, I certainly would not deal with it in a public manner as Trump has, because it demeans the integrity of the judicial office and thus potentially undermines the independence of the judiciary, especially coming from a man who could be president by this time next year.”) Eugene Volokh examines the no-not-even-close-on-current-evidence case for Curiel’s recusal. Earlier on the controversy here. […]