Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

Many people think that presidential candidate Donald Trump believes himself to be more a potential emperor than a candidate to head a co-equal branch of government in a constitutional democracy. Consider his string of comments about the ethnic heritage of a California federal judge who is presiding over a case filed against one of the self-proclaimed billionaire’s former real estate businesses, Trump University.

After telling a campaign rally crowd in San Diego that he would talk for two minutes about the case handled by Judge Gonzalo Curiel in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Trump went on a 12-minute tirade that included him calling the judge a “hater of Donald Trump” and referring to him as a “Mexican” even though the judge was born in Indiana. Trump also argued that the judge should recuse himself based on his prior rulings in the Trump University case; the fact that President Barack Obama appointed him to the bench; and Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Fortunately, Judge Curiel has responded in a manner that we should expect of a federal judge: he’s said nothing to address Trump’s comments, presumably because of his responsibilities under the judicial code of conduct. And he has not recused himself, either, because there is absolutely no legal reason for him to do so. 

Federal judges are not in a position to defend themselves by making public comments on cases before them because doing so could create a situation where recusal would be appropriate. Fortunately, a whole host of lawyers, commentators, politicians (including those from Trump’s own party), and public officials are rushing to the judge’s defense. As they should: by all accounts, Judge Curiel is an outstanding public servant who literally put his own life in danger in order to make his country a safer place while serving as a federal prosecutor, and he’s doing exactly what a judge is supposed to do. Even Trump’s own lawyer says so.

So, what have we learned here? That one of the major party presidential nominees either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the legal system, while the judge he is publicly shaming certainly does. The public could use more public servants like Judge Curiel. And polls suggest that they know it

Posted: 6/8/2016 7:24:27 AM by TCLE Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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