Judge Iuan Merchan, the judge overseeing Donald Trump’s criminal case in New York, donated $35 in political contributions to Democrats in 2020, including a $15 contribution to the campaign of Trump’s opponent, President Joe Biden.
The political donations are undoubtedly small, but they nevertheless raise questions about Merchan’s fairness, as he is attacked by the former president as a “Trump-hating judge.”
“Even though the amounts here are very small, it’s surprising that a sitting judge would make political donations of any size or to a candidate’s cause,” said Elie Honig, CNN’s senior legal analyst and former federal prosecutor.
According to federal election records, Merchan made three donations in July 2020 through ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and causes.
Merchan donated $15 to the Biden campaign, and made two $10 contributions, one to the Progressive Turnout Project, a veteran’s organization, and the other to Stay Republicans, a subsidiary of the Progressive Turnout Project.
Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University, said New York, like most US jurisdictions, adopted language from the American Bar Association’s Model Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from “soliciting money, paying an appraisal; or making a political contribution or candidate.”
The contribution to Biden and possibly the one to ‘Sist Republicans’ would be prohibited, unless there was another reason that would allow them, Gillers said.
But Gillers said the donation seemed “small,” especially given the small amount of money. He said that if a complaint had been made, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct would remind the judge of the rules.
Asked if this could be grounds for a challenge or recusal, Gillers said, “Absolutely not. This doesn’t add up to the kind of proof that’s required for a recusal.”
Trump attacked Merchan and his family, including his daughter, whose political consulting firm worked for the Biden campaign and now vice president Kamala Harris’ campaign. Trump is also getting the word out about Merchan because he is the president of the lawsuit against the Trump Organization, which was convicted on charges of tax fraud just last year.
Trump’s lawyers have not yet spent on political donations to the judge, but political allies are pointing to contributions to get the judge to remove himself from the case.
“Joe Biden donated to the campaign. This case should be dismissed. And this judge has a history with President Trump, in previous cases,” Mike Davis, former chief Republican counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and founder of the conservative judicial advocacy group, told CNN’s Pamela Brown. “This judge actually found a donation to the Biden campaign. at least it establishes the appearance of fairness – the appearance that this judge cannot be the most impartial against President Trump.
Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a legal analyst and former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said political donations are a “non-coerced mistake.”
“Judge Merchan has a reputation for being a fair-minded judge, however, by giving a political rival to a defendant the appearance of competition, even where there is none, he can create confusion in this case involving Trump.” he said.
A search of federal election databases turned up no additional information about Merchan’s political contributions. New York state campaign finance records show he gave a $99 contribution in 2002 to Rolando Acosta, who has served as a New York state appeals court judge since 2017.
A source familiar with the court system said the judicial administration does not monitor the personal matters of judges. The decision to refuse the case would be up to the merchant himself.
But if he doesn’t, Trump’s lawyers could challenge the matter to the New York state court.
A spokesman for the courts said, “We decline to comment on pending cases.”