Who is Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing Trump's New York criminal trial?

Trump is the first former president to face a criminal trial.

April 15, 2024, 4:10 AM

On a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, Juan Merchan -- the New York judge who will preside over Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial beginning Monday -- stepped off his bench in Manhattan criminal court and shook a defendant's hand.

"It really is my pleasure to grant the application to vacate the plea," Merchan told the defendant, Zenith Harper. "We are very, very proud of you."

A former armorer in the Marine Corps, Harper had pleaded guilty to a felony drug case that threatened to derail her life. But that day, she was freely walking out of the courtroom after participating in the New York's Veterans Treatment Court, a program that supports military veterans as they go through the legal system.

The process of overseeing Manhattan's Veteran Treatment Court has become a ritual for Merchan, who oversees both the Veteran and Mental Health courts in New York. Merchan has been involved with both "problem-solving courts'' for nearly a decade, helping build a court infrastructure outside of incarceration to connect defendants with supervised treatment.

"He's perfect for that part, and I don't know that I would have thought that up front," said Patricia Bailey, a defense attorney who has handled cases in the mental health court. "He's smart, he's measured, he's calm, and he controls his courtroom, which -- as you can imagine with people who are suffering from a mental illness -- can sometimes get a little chaotic."

Merchan handles that responsibility in addition to his normal case load, which currently includes the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president. Trump has pleaded not guilty to a 34-count indictment charging him with falsifying business records to conceal information from voters.

Since Trump's indictment last April, Merchan has overseen the former president's criminal case, including Trump's unsuccessful attempt to remove the case to federal court, two attempts to have him recused from the case, and approximately a dozen attempts to delay the case -- all while absorbing scathing criticism from Trump himself.

"It's very unfair that we have this judge who hates Trump," Trump said Friday during a press conference in Florida.

Tensions in the case have escalated since the last two hearings, with Merchan imposing a limited gag order on Trump and restrictions on filings for the attorneys in the case. During the final pretrial conference, Merchan scolded Trump’s attorneys for suggesting that he was complicit in prosecutorial misconduct.

"That you don't have a case right now is very disconcerting," Merchan said in court last month while raising his voice. "You are literally accusing the Manhattan DA's office and the people assigned to this case of prosecutorial misconduct and to make me complicit in it, and you don't have a single cite to support that position."

'Gives everyone a fair shake'

Separated by approximately two decades in age, both Merchan and the man whose trial he is tasked with overseeing are both products of the New York borough of Queens.

Trump grew up in the borough's Jamaica Estates neighborhood before attending the New York Military Academy then entering Fordham University for his undergraduate degree.

Merchan, whose family immigrated from Colombia when he was six, grew up 10 miles away in Jackson Heights. He worked during college and eventually graduated from New York's Baruch College with a degree in business administration before graduating from Hofstra Law School on Long Island.

PHOTO: Justice Juan Merchan presides during a hearing, before the trial of former President Donald Trump, over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan, March 25, 2024.
Justice Juan Merchan presides during a hearing, before the trial of former President Donald Trump, over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan state court, March 25, 2024.
Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

"He was clearly someone who was there to make the most of his time," said Alberto Ebanks, a New York attorney and classmate of Merchan. " You knew he was going to be someone right away -- you just knew it."

From Hofstra, Merchan began working for the Manhattan district attorney's office, spending four years in its trial division and an additional year in its investigations division. By 1999, he had moved to the New York attorney general's Office, where he oversaw cases in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.

Merchan became a judge in the Bronx Family Court in 2006 before moving to Manhattan Criminal Court in 2009.

"He always gives everyone a fair shake," said attorney Brian Kennedy, who has tried multiple trials before Merchan. "His reputation among attorneys, court staff, prosecutors, and defense attorneys is that he is incredibly fair, even keeled, and well intentioned."

A firm approach

Monday's trial is far from Merchan's first rodeo handling cases involving the former president.

He oversaw the negotiations related to former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg’s 2022 plea agreement as well as the criminal trial of the Trump Organization -- though Trump himself did not directly participate in either matter.

Only two other jurists -- Justice Arthur Engoron and federal Judge Lewis Kaplan -- have overseen trials involving the former president since he left the White House.

Kaplan -- who oversaw both of columnist E. Jean Carroll's trials against the former president -- notably clashed with Trump in the courtroom.

"Mr. Trump has the right to be present here. That right can be forfeited and it can be forfeited if he is disruptive, which is what has been reported to me," Kaplan said after Trump made audible remarks in front of the jury in his January 2024 defamation trial. "I understand you are probably very eager for me to do that."

"I would love it, I would love it," Trump responded while throwing his hands in the air.

"I know you would, because you can't control yourself in this circumstance," Kaplan said. "You just can't."

Engoron took a different tack during Trump's civil fraud trial, giving Trump more leeway during his testimony and permitting the former president to give his own closing statement.

"I don't want you to think I'm a pushover," Engoron told the parties during the final day of the trial.

Based on recent pretrial hearings in the case, Merchan appears to favor a firmer approach in his interactions with the former president, though it remains unclear what tactics he might adopt in the presence of a jury.

"He falls much more on the Kaplan side of the spectrum than on the Engoron side," said attorney and former diplomat Norm Eisen.

'Control of the courtroom'

Over the last month, Merchan has begun to show signs of frustration with Trump's attorneys, imposing restrictions on their pretrial filings and criticizing their recent effort to suggest prosecutors engaged in misconduct related to newly-discovered documents in the case.

Trump's lawyers have fired back in recent weeks by renewing their effort to have Merchan rescued from the case based on an alleged financial conflict stemming from his daughter's work as a political consultant.

"This can only be done once, and it must be done right because of the impact it will have on this election," defense attorney Emil Bove told an appellate judge on Wednesday, before the judge denied the defense's request to delay the trial based on the recusal effort.

Merchan, in a ruling issued on Friday related to Trump's final request for a delay based on pretrial publicity, issued a warning shot regarding Trump's lawyers' "presenting inflammatory, baseless, or downright false claims in sworn filings."

"The People's justifiable concern, compels this Court, again, to express its continuing and growing alarm over counsel practice of making serious allegations and representations that have no apparent basis in fact," Merchan wrote.

Bailey, who has handled cases before Merchan for nearly a decade, said she expects Merchan to maintain strict order in his courtroom over the coming months.

"He's going to have control of the courtroom," she said. "He won't be thrown by any of it, he won't get flustered by it."

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