When Donald Trump enters a New York courtroom on Tuesday, he’ll face a seasoned judge who is no stranger to the former president’s orbit.
Acting New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan has sentenced Trump’s close confident Allen Weisselberg to prison, presided over the Trump Organization tax fraud trial and overseen former adviser Steve Bannon’s criminal fraud case.
But Trump’s historic arraignment on Tuesday will perhaps be Merchan’s most high-profile case to date, even after a long career atop the state-level trial court.
Merchan has been described by observers as a “tough” judge, yet one who is fair, no matter who is before him.
Here’s what you need to know.
“A man of his word’
Trump’s arraignment is likely to be a spectacle with a show of law enforcement and with the former president already fanning the flames on social media with his views on Merchan and his indictment.
But in the courthouse, Merchan does not stand for disruptions or delays, attorneys who have appeared before him told CNN, and he’s known to maintain control of his courtroom even when his cases draw considerable attention.
“Judge Merchan was efficient, practical, and listened carefully to what I had to say,” Nicholas Gravante, the attorney who represented Weisselberg in his plea, said via email.
“He was clear in signaling his judicial inclinations, which helped me tremendously in giving Mr. Weisselberg informed legal advice. Judge Merchan was always well-prepared, accessible, and — most importantly in the Weisselberg matter — a man of his word. He treated me and my colleagues with the utmost respect, both in open court and behind closed doors.”
Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a private practice attorney who previously worked as the chief assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, supervising cases Merchan presided over, echoed that sentiment.
“[Merchan] doesn’t let the prosecutors or the defendants create any issues in his courtroom. He doesn’t let a media circus or any other kind of circus happen. I don’t think Donald Trump attacking him and threatening him is going to bode very well for him in the courtroom,” Agnifilo said.
“The judge is the kind of judge where he will ignore it and not hold it against Donald Trump. He’s not vindictive in any way like that.”
‘Tough’ but ‘compassionate’
Merchan showed some of his tough side when Weisselberg was sentenced, telling the former Trump associate that if he had not already promised him a five-month sentence, he would have handed him a “much greater” sentence after having listened to evidence at trial.
When he presided over Bannon’s criminal fraud case, Merchan chastised the former Trump aide’s new team of attorneys for delaying the case when they asked for more time to review new evidence.
In addition to the Trump cases, Merchan has also presided over other high-profile cases, including the “soccer mom madam” trial, in which he set a $2 million bond for suburban mom Anna Gristina, who was charged with running a $2,000-an-hour escort service for the wealthy, Bloomberg News reported.
Merchan also handed a 25-years-to-life sentence to a Senegalese man who raped and murdered his girlfriend.
Trump attorney Timothy Parlatore said during an interview Friday on CNN that Merchan was “not easy” on him when he tried a case before him, but echoed that the judge likely will be fair.
“I’ve tried a case in front of him before. He could be tough. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be something that’s going to change his ability to evaluate the facts and the law in this case,” Parlatore said.
Merchan, however, is also credited by his peers for having helped create the Manhattan Mental Health Court, which he often presides over and where he has earned a reputation for “compassionate” rulings that give defendants second chances.
“I watched a colleague of mine try a shooting case where someone got shot, so he’s able to try those very serious violent crimes and then switch,” said Brendan Tracy, a criminal defense attorney who previously served as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
“Maybe someone who was a serial shoplifter and then charged with grand larceny and is in mental health treatment court because they had mental health issues, he was able to handle the wide range of cases and do them all fairly,” Tracy added.
Still, Earl Ward, a trial attorney and chair of public defender nonprofit The Bronx Defenders, said that having watched Merchan preside over cases in the Mental Health Court, the judge often sided with prosecutors.
“He’s fair and his rulings are consistent with the law, but if it’s a close call, his reputation is that he lands on the prosecution’s side,” Ward said.
Merchan launched his legal career in 1994 when he started off as an assistant district attorney in the trial division in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Several years later, he moved on to the state attorney general’s office, where he worked on cases in Long Island.
In 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, then a Republican, appointed Merchan to Family Court in the Bronx, and Democratic Gov. David Paterson appointed him to the New York State Court of Claims in 2009, the same year he began serving as an acting New York Supreme Court Judge.
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Merchan emigrated to the United States at the age of 6 and grew up in the New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, according to a New York Times profile of the judge. He was the first in his family to go to college.
Merchan initially studied business at Baruch College in New York before he dropped out of school to go work only to return several years later to finish school so that he could get his law degree, the Times reported.
He eventually received his law degree from Hofstra University.
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