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Who's Judge Juan Merchan? Trump says he 'hates me' but lawyers say he's fair

The acting New York Supreme Court justice is expected to preside over Trump's arraignment next week, and could oversee his trial.
Judge Juan Merchan at his office in New York County Criminal Court on Oct. 21, 2022.
Judge Juan Merchan at his office in New York County Criminal Court in 2022. Ahmed Gaber / The New York Times / Redux

Donald Trump dismisses him as a hater, but Judge Juan Merchan, who's expected to preside over the former president's arraignment, is a veteran jurist with a reputation for being stern yet compassionate.

"He's a serious jurist, smart and even tempered," said Ron Kuby, a longtime defense lawyer in Manhattan. "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."

Barry Kamins, a New York judge turned defense lawyer, said his 60-year-old former colleague "is well-known, even in difficult cases, to exhibit excellent temperament, integrity and a solid knowledge of the law."

Trump has taken a different view of Merchan, the acting state Supreme Court justice who is set to preside over Tuesday's arraignment and likely to oversee any subsequent trial.

On Friday morning, Trump blasted Merchan on his social media website Truth Social, while misspelling the judge’s last name.

“The Judge ‘assigned’ to my Witch Hunt Case, a ‘Case’ that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME. His name is Juan Manuel Marchan,” Trump wrote, alleging he’d been “hand-picked” for the case by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state court system, said Merchan had been randomly assigned to supervise the investigative grand jury, and that judges who supervise such probes are then assigned to try any cases that come out of the grand jury.

Trump also complained about the judge’s handling of the recent criminal tax fraud trial involving the Trump Organization, which was fined $1.6 million after being found guilty on all 17 counts. The prosecution's star witness in that case was former Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who testified against the company as part of a plea agreement.

Trump, on Truth Social, characterized Merchan as "the same person who 'railroaded' my 75 year old former CFO, Allen Weisselberg, to take a 'plea' deal (Plead GUILTY, even if you are not, 90 DAYS, fight us in Court, 10 years (life!) in jail. He strong armed Allen, which a judge is not allowed to do, & treated my companies, which didn’t 'plead,' VICIOUSLY."

While Merchan signed off on Weisselberg’s plea deal, the agreement was worked out between Weisselberg, his lawyers and the district attorney's office.

Nicholas Gravante Jr, who represented Weisselberg in those plea talks, described Merchan in much different terms than Trump's online attack.

“He was mindful of the role my colleagues and I played as advocates, treating us with the utmost respect both in open court and behind closed doors,” Gravante said, adding that Merchan was "practical, efficient, a real 'listener,' well-prepared and a man who kept his word."

At Weisselberg's sentencing in January, Gravante asked Merchan for a sentence shorter than the five months he'd agreed to. The judge refused the request, saying he believed “a stiffer sentence might be appropriate having heard the evidence” in the case, but that he felt obligated to stick to the deal he agreed to in August.

Lawyer Gloria Allred, a Trump critic, said she thinks Merchan is the “right judge” for the hush money case, given his experience with the Trump Organization trial, but that his experience “may be the reason that the defense seeks to obtain another judge for this case.”

Trump's indictment will be unsealed at the arraignment Tuesday, when he's expected to enter a plea in the case. Trump is the first former president to be charged criminally.

Arthur Aidala, a veteran criminal defense lawyer who’s been critical of Bragg’s investigation into hush money payments, said Trump should feel good about Merchan overseeing the case.

Merchan is “known as a fair judge who does not lean heavily in one direction or the other. It’s a good place for President Trump to be,” Aidala said.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Merchan moved to the United States with his family when he was 6, and grew up in Queens, New York. People familiar with his background told The New York Times last year that he got his first job carrying groceries for tips when he was 9.

Merchan held side jobs through high school and college, including washing dishes at a diner and working as the night manager of a hotel, the paper reported, before earning a business degree from Baruch College in 1990 and a law degree from Hofstra University in 1994. He then went to work in the Manhattan district attorney's office for five years before taking a job at the state attorney general's office. Both of those offices would eventually be involved in a joint investigation of Trump's finances about a dozen years later.

Then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointed Merchan to be a judge in Bronx family court in 2006. He was named an acting state Supreme Court justice in 2009, overseeing felony criminal cases.

Before the Trump Organization case, the two biggest cases Merchan had presided over were in 2012: One case involved a murder suspect who said he'd been cursed by a witch doctor, the other involved a woman who was dubbed the "soccer mom madam" by one of the city's tabloids.

The witch doctor case came to an abrupt end when the suspect pleaded guilty in the middle of the trial, after Merchan had denied his request to call a witch doctor to testify on his behalf. Merchan sentenced the defendant to 25 years in prison.

The so-called soccer mom madam case involved a suburban woman who was accused of running a high-end prostitution ring. Anna Gristina eventually pleaded guilty to a single count of promoting prostitution in return for a six-month sentence. Merchan signed off on the deal and the sentence, but chided her for bringing her 9-year-old to court for the sentencing.

The case inspired the 2021 Lifetime movie "Soccer Mom Madam."

Merchan's current caseload includes overseeing the criminal case against former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, who’s charged with defrauding donors who were giving money to build a wall at the southern U.S. border. Bannon has pleaded not guilty.