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What to know about Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing Trump's criminal case

Manhattan Criminal Court is seen in New York, Friday, March. 31, 2023.
Yuki Iwamura
/
AP
Manhattan Criminal Court is seen in New York, Friday, March. 31, 2023.

Now that former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury in connection to a hush-money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in 2016, attention will no doubt turn to his arraignment and potential trial.

The judge handling the unusual and historic case is Juan Manuel Merchan, a veteran of the New York court system who has spent more than 15 years on the bench and is no stranger to high-profile prosecutions — particularly those involving Trump and his associates.

This is perhaps Merchan's most noteworthy case yet, as it's the first time that a former U.S. president has ever been charged with a crime.

Trump, who denies any wrongdoing, is expected to appear in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday for his arraignment.

The former president has already aired his opinion about the judge presiding over his case, saying in a post on Truth Social last week that Merchan "hates me" and that the judge "railroaded" Trump's former chief financial officer into pleading guilty in a tax fraud case.

Merchan has overseen other cases related to Trump

Last year, Merchan oversaw the closely watched criminal tax fraud case against Trump's company, which was ultimately found guilty by a Manhattan jury. Trump himself was not a defendant in that case.

Two business entities controlled by Trump were found guilty of 17 counts of tax fraud and falsifying business records and were ordered to pay the maximum penalty of $1.61 million.

During the proceedings, Merchan shut down the suggestion from the Trump Organization's legal team that the case was a politically motivated prosecution against the former president and told attorneys to focus on the specific charges, CBS News reported.

"I will not allow you in any way to bring up a selective prosecution claim, or claim this is some sort of novel prosecution," Merchan said.

Former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty in the case and served as a star witness for the prosecution. Merchan sentenced him to five months in prison, and the judge said he would have handed down a harsher sentence if he hadn't already agreed to the plea deal, Politico reported.

Merchan is also overseeing a criminal case against former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who's facing fraud and money laundering charges related to a former charity that promised to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Bannon has pleaded not guilty.

Merchan is a veteran of the New York legal system

According to the New York Law Journal, Merchan has been an acting justice of the New York Supreme Court since 2009.

"He's a serious jurist, smart and even tempered," Manhattan defense attorney Ron Kuby told NBC News. "He's not one of those judges who yells at lawyers, and is characterized as a no-nonsense judge. But he's always in control of the courtroom."

Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a lawyer who previously worked in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office supervising cases Merchan oversaw, told CNN that Trump likely wouldn't help his case by publicly criticizing the judge.

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."

Merchan was previously a family court judge, a New York assistant attorney general and an assistant district attorney for New York County.

He graduated from Baruch College in 1990 and earned his law degree from Hofstra University in 1994.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez