Meet the New York judge deciding the fate of Trump's business empire

The judge's resume includes a seven-year stint as a professional musician.

October 3, 2023, 9:05 AM

As attorneys for the New York attorney general present their case in the $250 million dollar civil fraud case levied against former president Donald Trump and his adult sons, they are largely delivering their arguments to an audience of one.

Justice Arthur Engoron is not only overseeing the trial, but will determine the outcome and penalties -- giving him outsized influence over Trump's fate compared to the judges overseeing his criminal trials or his recent civil defamation trial, which was decided by a jury.

Engoron has already decided some key elements of the fraud case, finding last week that the documents provided by the New York attorney general's office sufficiently prove that Trump and his co-defendants persistently and repeatedly used fraudulent financial records to conduct business. Trump's attorneys have vowed to appeal that ruling, and the remaining elements of the state's case, including the size of the penalty he faces, will be decided during trial.

Trump has denied all wrongdoing in the case, and his attorneys have described him as a "master of finding value where others do not," arguing that Trump's alleged inflated valuations were a product of his business skill.

Last week's ruling prompted ire from Trump, who described Engoron on social media as a "highly partisan Democrat 'Judge.'" And Trump's criticism is likely to continue, as Engoron oversees what is likely to be a weeks-long examination of Trump's business dealings and namesake properties.

On Monday, the first day of the trial, Trump spoke with reporters outside the courtroom, where he attacked Engoron as a "rogue judge" who failed to account for the full value of his real estate portfolio. The former president has also been fundraising off his claims that the case is politically motivated.

Engoron has served as a judge in New York County for the last 20 years, first on the city's civil court and later on the state supreme court. Described by colleagues as "even-keeled," "dedicated," and "bright," Engoron has developed a reputation as a reliable albeit unusual judge, according to past and former associates who spoke with ABC News.

PHOTO: In this courtroom sketch, Justice Arthur Engoron listens to Trump's lawyer Clifford Robert during a hearing in New York, Sept. 22, 2023.
In this courtroom sketch, Justice Arthur Engoron listens to Trump's lawyer Clifford Robert during a hearing related to New York Attorney General Letitia James' civil lawsuit alleging that former President Donald Trump ran a systematic fraud at his family business at a courthouse in New York, Sept. 22, 2023.
Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

Unlike many judges who follow a relatively predictable trajectory to the court -- law school followed by clerking, then years in private practice or in government service -- Engoron's path to the bench includes a seven-year detour as a professional musician and teacher.

"He did not follow in a straightforward or cookie-cutter path," said Donald Zakarin, a law partner at Pryor Cashman who worked with Engoron in the early 1980s.

Born in Queens, New York, and raised in nearby Nassau County, Engoron attended The Wheatley School before getting his bachelor's degree at Columbia University, during which time he drove a taxicab -- a fact that he revealed while hearing arguments in 2012 about a new class of New York City cabs.

"I loved the freedom, the instant cash, getting to meet people, learning how to drive like a maniac without being caught," Engoron said in court, according to New York Post reporting from the time.

After Columbia, Engoron spent the next four years attempting to build a career as a drummer before enrolling at New York University School of Law, according to a court employee familiar with Engoron's curriculum vitae.

"Afterwards I was, in order, a Park Avenue litigator; a piano and drum teacher; a moderately successful bar-band keyboard player; a law clerk to a judge; and, now, an elected New York State Supreme Court Justice," Engoron described in a blog for his high school's alumni association, to which he regularly posts.

Engoron began his legal career at the now-defunct firm Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O'Donnell & Weyher before working for Pryor Cashman between 1981 and 1983.

James Janowitz, a Pryor Cashman partner who worked with Engoron, described the then-associate as "bright and extremely dedicated," and recalled pulling an all-nighter with him. Engoron left the firm after two years to pursue a musical career.

"I have had a lot of lawyers who got to another firm, but he's the only one who told me he was leaving to pursue music," Janowitz said.

Engoron spent seven years teaching piano and playing the drums, according to the court employee. He eventually returned to the law in 1991 to begin clerking for New York Supreme Court Justice Martin Schoenfield, according to his court biography. When asked to comment about his transition to music and return to the law, Engoron declined to comment for this story.

During the time Engoron clerked for Schoenfield, the supreme court justice heard arguments related to then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation of Merrill Lynch, as well as the high-profile divorce and custody battle of "Footloose" star Lori Singer, according to New York Post reporting from the time. Schoenfield declined to comment to ABC News.

PHOTO: Justice Arthur Engoron of the state Supreme Court listens to opening arguments in New York City, Oct. 2, 2023 in this courtroom sketch.
Justice Arthur Engoron of the state Supreme Court listens to opening arguments by Kevin Wallace (not seen), a lawyer in state Attorney General Letitia James' office, during the trial of former president Donald Trump, his adult sons, the Trump Organization and others in a civil fraud case in New York City, Oct. 2, 2023 in this courtroom sketch.
Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

Engoron became a judge in 2003 after winning an election to join the New York City Civil Court.

"As a new judge, there's so much to absorb, so much coming at you," Engoron said in a 2003 article in the New York State Court System's internal newsletter.

Engoron won reelection in 2012 and was designated an acting justice for the New York Supreme Court in 2013, before he was elected to the court in 2016. Like most judges in New York, Engoron has run unopposed in his races within the Democratic Party, which uses a delegate primary convention system controlled by party leadership to nominate judges for generally unopposed elections.

During his time on the bench, Engoron took a hard line against the administration of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ordering the mayor to release a report about the city's $2.3 billion 911 call system in 2012. In a sharply-worded ruling, Engoron compared Bloomberg's attempt to suppress the report to former President Richard Nixon's maneuvering during the Watergate scandal, ABC News reported at the time.

"He was not going to be cowed by authority," Zakarin said of Engoron, with whom he has worked and had cases before. "He cared about the truth, honesty, and doing the right thing."

Engoron has faced a wave of criticism and online attacks since he began overseeing Trump's case last year, with the former president calling Engoron "vicious, biased, and mean." The attack prompted the Brehon Society of New York, an Irish legal society of which Engoron is a member, to defend the judge.

"These attacks are reprehensible," the group's president, Domhnall O'Cathain, wrote in a statement in 2022 following Trump's criticism. "As a bar association with a large membership of trial attorneys, we know the excellence and integrity of Judge Engoron."

The attacks against Engoron appeared to increase following his ruling last week, with a notable increase of hateful, anti-Semitic, and violent language targeted at Engoron on far-right social media sites.

In spite of the outsized attention on the case, Engoron's colleagues maintained they fully expect the judge to oversee the case professionally and responsibly.

"Judges are usually levelheaded, and he certainly fits that mold," a colleague of the judge told ABC News.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

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