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Juan M. Merchan, the Hispanic-American who has been assigned the case of a lifetime: judging Donald Trump

Following the indictment, the former president’s followers flooded the Manhattan judge’s voicemail and email with hateful messages

María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo
donald trump stormy daniels
Judge Juan Merchan, during the arraignment of Donald Trump on Tuesday in New York.JANE ROSENBERG (REUTERS)

Until Tuesday, April 4, the only thing that Donald J. Trump and Juan M. Merchan had in common was their childhood in Queens, New York. But as of this past week, the fate of both men has been inextricably linked by justice. The former Republican president will be seated on the defendant’s bench, while Merchan will preside over his trial, wielding a gavel.

Initially, Trump had been reserving most of his attacks for Alvin Bragg, who, as the district attorney of Manhattan county, led the investigation into accounting irregularities in the paying of a bribe to porn actress Stormy Daniels, to hush up an alleged extramarital affair. However, after learning the identity of the judge who would go on to read 34 charges against Trump on Tuesday – including one for alleged tax fraud – the former president shifted his anger.

“That judge HATES ME,” he wrote on his Truth Social media account, referring to the judge who was randomly assigned to his case.

Unlike Trump, Merchan is so inconspicuous that his age is not even known. He was born in Bogotá and immigrated to the United States with his family at the end of the 1960s, when he was six-years-old. Hence, he must be around the age of 60. He grew up in Jackson Heights: the most diverse neighborhood in Queens. Before dedicating himself to law, he worked as an auditor at a real estate company, a dishwasher and a night porter in a hotel. His legal career began in 1994, after graduating with a law degree from Hofstra, a private university on Long Island.

Merchan spent several years with the New York County Attorney General’s Office, handling numerous financial fraud cases, before becoming Assistant Attorney General for Nassau County in 1999. In 2006, he was appointed as a Bronx Family Court Judge by then-Mayor of the city, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Since 2009, he has been a criminal judge of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. He also presides over the Manhattan Mental Health Court and the Veterans Treatment Court, which provide special services.

“He is a serious, intelligent and even-tempered lawyer,” Ron Kuby, a media lawyer from Manhattan, said in a statement to NBC News. “He isn’t one of those judges who yells at lawyers… but he doesn’t mince words. He always manages to keep control of the room.”

Little is known about his life, other than rulings and sentences. Images of the judge aren’t abundant, either… there are only portraits drawn by cartoonists, who keep a graphic record of trials. However, through Truth Social, Trump revealed that Merchan has a daughter who worked on Vice President Kamala Harris’ unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign. This information has since been weaponized by Republicans, who are using it to underline the existence of a “witch hunt” against the former president.

While Trump’s trial will be Merchan’s most public case, it is not his first Trump-related legal entanglement. He is already overseeing a trial against Steve Bannon – a former Trump adviser and prominent idealogue of the alt-right – who has pleaded not guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges related to raising funds for the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. Bannon’s trial is scheduled for November.

At the end of 2022, Merchan also oversaw the trial for tax fraud that – after five weeks of deliberations – led to the conviction of Allen Weisselberg, the former financial director of the Trump Organization. Many consider Weisselberg to be a scapegoat, who was used to prevent justice from touching his boss. Merchan fined the Trump Organization $1.6 million – the maximum allowed by law.

Before the jury deliberated, the judge reminded its members that they should put their emotions aside, especially any notion of feeling intimidated by the all-powerful tycoon:

“Donald Trump and his family are not being tried here,” he emphasized. The argument of political persecution, he stressed, lacks a legal basis.

According to The Daily News, the judge isn’t taking Trump’s doses of vitriol personally, even after seeing his phone numbers and email addresses flooded with hate messages since it became known that the indictment was imminent. Trump haters have also targeted prosecutor Alvin Bragg, filling social media with memes in which a baseball bat can be seen about to hit the district attorney’s head.

Interestingly, Merchan is Hispanic and Bragg is African American… a delicious wink from fate at Trump’s xenophobia.

To curb the inflammatory rhetoric, the judge asked Trump on Tuesday to refrain from making comments that were “likely to incite violence or civil unrest.” The Republican’s response was as expected: to target the Merchan family, starting with his wife, who is apparently a “hater” of the Donald.

A tricky dilemma has opened up for the judge. He can potentially discipline Trump, but will have to be careful to avoid a direct confrontation that could be misinterpreted as bias. As Merchan needs to assert his authority over the proceedings, few are ruling out the possibility that, at the next hearing – scheduled for December 4 of 2023 – Trump may be charged with contempt of court.

Merchan coordinated with Trump’s defense team, so that the appearance on Tuesday could go smoothly. The star judge – a stickler for procedure – was oblivious to the media storm that has engulfed the first-ever indictment of an American president. Even Trump’s attorney, Joe Tacopina, rejected his client’s criticism of Merchan:

“Do I think the judge is biased? Of course not,” he scoffed.

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