Judge Merchan’s Familiarity With Trump

The first former U.S. President to face a criminal trial and the judge overseeing those proceedings are both children of Queens. Donald Trump grew up in a faux Tudor house in Jamaica Estates, and Juan Merchan was raised a few miles down the Grand Central Parkway in Jackson Heights.

Merchan knows more about Trump than their shared geography.

The New York Supreme Court judge, named to that position in 2009, also presided over the case that found the Trump Organization guilty of criminal tax fraud for failing to pay taxes on compensation to senior executives. That trial resulted in a $435 million judgment that Trump has appealed, and jail time for Trump’s chief financial officer Alan Weisselberg, who pled guilty to perjury.

It also made Merchan familiar with the players in Trump’s orbit—many of whom like Eric Trump and Don. Jr. are potential witnesses in the hush-money case—and with Trump’s well-worn courtroom tactics to deny, deflect and delay legal proceedings. 

Trump has gone after Merchan in public, calling him a “certified Trump hater” and saying he’s biased because his daughter has worked on campaign marketing for Democratic campaigns.

People who’ve watched Merchan for years paint a different picture. He is known for being soft-spoken, well-prepared and efficient and has a reputation for not letting his courtroom be dominated by wild antics. 

“He’s just a no-nonsense individual,” says Alberto Ebanks, a criminal defense attorney who has argued cases in front of Merchan and graduated a year ahead of him at Hofstra Law. Merchan is “fair” and “in full command of that courtroom,” Ebanks says.

That approach has been on display as Trump’s trial in New York gets underway. 

During jury selection, Merchan shut down Trump when he exclaimed in court about a potential juror who posted videos of people celebrating after Trump lost the 2020 election. Merchan told Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, that he could hear Trump speaking and see him gesturing, and warned him to make Trump stop. “He was speaking in the direction of the juror,” Merchan sharply said. “I won’t tolerate that. I will not tolerate any jurors being intimidated in this courtroom.” 

Merchan’s rulings haven’t all been against Trump. He told prosecutors on Monday they would not be allowed to show footage from the Access Hollywood tape of Trump describing grabbing women’s genitals. (Prosecutors will be allowed to tell jurors what Trump said.)

But Merchan has shown signs that he has limited patience for Trump’s tactics.

This week, Merchan warned Trump’s lawyers not to draw out the jury selection as a way to delay the trial. So far Merchan and other judges in New York have rebuffed Trump’s repeated efforts to delay the trial, including a failed attempt to get the case moved to federal court, two failed attempts to get Merchan to take himself off the case, and a dozen other efforts to delay the proceedings.

Days before Trump’s trial was set to start, Merchan shot down Trump’s request for a delay over complaints for how the case was being depicted in news reports. In his ruling, Merchan warned Trump’s team against “presenting inflammatory, baseless, or downright false claims in sworn filings,” telegraphing that he wasn’t going to put up with many more motions larded with unproven accusations. “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.

Trump has repeatedly blasted Merchan, in a calculated effort to turn public opinion against the judge and paint him as politically motivated. Walking out of the second day of court on Tuesday, after Judge Merchan had impaneled 7 jurors, Trump described Merchan as “a conflicted judge” who is “rushing this trial.” “This is a Biden-inspired witch hunt and it should end,” Trump told reporters outside the courtroom.

Trump has repeatedly put a spotlight on Merchan’s daughter, Loren Merchan, who has worked as a leader of Authentic Campaigns, a firm that does marketing work for Democratic campaigns such as web design, digital fundraising, mobile messaging. Judge Merchan sought an ethical opinion on whether he should step aside. In August 2023, Merchan rejected an earlier motion by Trump to recuse himself, writing that he found “that recusal would not be in the public interest” and that “this Court has examined its conscience and is certain in its ability to be fair and impartial.”

Merchan has served as a judge for nearly two decades. He migrated with his family to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of six and, while living in Queens, worked his way through New York’s Baruch College studying business administration, eventually graduating from Long Island’s Hofstra University Law School. He started working as a lawyer in 1994, first as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s trial division and later in the state attorney general’s office. In 2006, Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appointed Merchan to the family court in the Bronx. Three years later, Democratic Governor David Paterson named Merchan to the New York Court of Claims. Also in 2009, Merchan was named an acting judge on New York’s Supreme Court, the statewide trial court that has broad jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters.

In addition to Trump’s trial, Merchan is also the judge for a case against Trump’s former White House strategic advisor Steve Bannon, over allegations of criminal fraud in a fundraising effort called “We Build The Wall.” That case is set to go to trial later this year.