WILMINGTON, Del. — When U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika started quizzing lawyers in her courtroom on Wednesday about a plea deal — what is normally a routine process — her questions about the constitutionality of the arrangement pushed her into the center of a spotlight of an already heated political fight.
The Delaware judge raised numerous concerns over the deal, causing those on the left to accuse her, a former President Donald Trump appointee, of yielding to political pressure from Republicans. And while the opposite side of the aisle was slightly pleased by her decision, it wasn't what they had hoped for — having her toss the whole thing out.
“Every judge has to be appointed by a president from one party or another — that’s how you get the job,” said former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, a frequent critic of Trump. “But most of the judges are just like this judge in Delaware, they’re committed, experienced people, and when they rule cases, it’s a ruling that’s based on the facts and the evidence.”
Noreika was appointed as a federal judge in 2018 by the Trump administration, but she received the endorsement of Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, both Delaware Democrats, at her nomination. Nevertheless, the fact she was appointed by Trump and has other ties to the Republican Party has some criticizing her as potentially partisan — and others arguing that she would counter any bias from the current Justice Department that is overseen by a Biden appointee.
“I’m pleased that the White House consulted with Sen. Carper and me and accepted our recommendations for the U.S. District Court bench,” Coons, a close ally of the Biden administration, said when Noreika was first nominated in 2018. The senator added that Noreika and another nominee to the same court were “seasoned attorneys, with impressive trial skills, deep experience in federal practice and profound respect for the law. I am confident that they will both be capable jurists, and I look forward to their confirmation hearings.”
Noreika earned a masters degree in biology from Columbia before she ultimately graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. She became a celebrated attorney in Delaware trying cases as a corporate litigator with Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell, specializing in intellectual property and patent law cases. She earned numerous honors and awards for her legal practice, according to the questionnaire she provided the Judiciary Committee for her nomination.
She came to the bench with more than 20 years of civil trial experience, rather than trying criminal cases, which could explain her decision to tread carefully over such a high-profile criminal case.
While the judge has no overt political ties, she has made a number of political donations, beginning in 1999 and extending through 2014, according to public records. While she contributed to some Democrats, her preference appeared to lean toward Republicans.
Noreika’s first donation was a $100 contribution to Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, who was the first woman to be elected governor of Delaware in 2000. Minner was a moderate Democrat with farming roots from the southern part of the state who championed fiscally conservative positions and progressive social policies. Noreika also contributed $1,000 to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and $1,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
She then donated thousands of dollars to Republicans Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton, who are both now serving in the U.S. Senate.
Noreika's views regarding Hunter Biden and the White House aren't known. This also isn’t the first legal issue that Noreika has faced on the bench related to the Bidens.
She tossed out a defamation lawsuit brought by John Paul Mac Isaac, the man who was hired to repair Hunter Biden’s laptop and then played a role in it becoming public. He sued CNN, Politico and Hunter Biden himself.
Still, seeming to surprise prosecutors, defense lawyers and observers, Noreika had several issues with the plea agreement in Wednesday's hearing. She expressed concern about whether the agreement was constitutional, whether it truly gave Hunter Biden the legal protections he was due, and whether it was airtight, meaning there could be questions raised in the future about what it covered.
“Mr Biden, I know you want to get this over with, and I’m sorry,” she said from the bench on Wednesday. “But I do want to make sure that I am careful in my view of this, so I do need some more information. And part of that is making sure that your plea gets you what you think it gets and part of it is making sure that I do justice as I’m required to do in this court.”
There were two parts to the original deal between Hunter Biden and prosecutors: a plea agreement for the misdemeanor tax charges and a diversion agreement for a separate felony gun charge.
Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to require Hunter Biden to follow a strict set of rules for 24 months to avoid the gun charge. The deal would require any future violation to the diversion be vetted by Noreika before a charge could be filed, according to court documents — an added layer that drew scrutiny.
Chris Clark, Hunter Biden’s attorney, explained in court that they added the layer so that the president’s son wouldn't have to worry that a future administration could abandon the agreement for political reasons, saying it was “so that wouldn’t be something that would become more politicized, but rather would be something that the parties could rely on, someone we consider a neutral arbiter to determine the breach, not the charge.”
Noreika raised concerns that having her oversee the diversion agreement was “outside of my lane in terms of what I am allowed to do” constitutionally.
“That choice as to whether to bring charges, that’s the executive branch, not the judicial branch,” she said. "So is this even constitutional?”
Vance said the inclusion of that added layer was a reflection of the partisan divisions the country face, particularly as Trump, his family and his allies have directed attacks directly at the president’s son.
“I can’t think of any case where you’ve ever had to take account in devising a plea agreement of the possibility that the next president of the United States might exact personal revenge on a defendant,” she said. “And so prosecutors and defense alike have to bend over backwards to prevent that. That’s so far beyond the realm and scope of what prosecutors do, but it’s the reality.”
Noreika raised other concerns, saying she was being asked to act as “a rubber stamp” over the tax charges.
Vance predicted that the two sides would “tweak the plea agreement to make it work,” and then Noreika would accept it.