I have a question about Donald Trump.
Hell. I am in Hell. This is Hell.
Calm down. I just want to ask about his argument about that federal judge hearing the Trump University case.
Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the United States District Judge hearing two related cases against Trump and Trump University, which I wrote about last week?
You couldn't retain his name for six whole days?
You're going to make this difficult, aren't you?
You have no idea.
I just want to know whether Trump has any law on his side. When do federal judges have to recuse themselves?
There are two federal laws governing recusal. One is about procedure, the other is about substance.
Title 18, United States Code, section 455 governs substance. It starts with a catch-all:
(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
Then it offers specifics:
(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:
(1) Where he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding;
(2) Where in private practice he served as lawyer in the matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom he previously practiced law served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter, or the judge or such lawyer has been a material witness concerning it;
(3) Where he has served in governmental employment and in such capacity participated as counsel, adviser or material witness concerning the proceeding or expressed an opinion concerning the merits of the particular case in controversy;
(4) He knows that he, individually or as a fiduciary, or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;
(5) He or his spouse, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse of such a person:
(i) Is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, or trustee of a party;
(ii) Is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;
(iii) Is known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;
(iv) Is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.
So all federal judges are dudes?
Don't start with me.
That "might reasonably be questioned" is awfully broad. Doesn't that mean Trump is right?
Only if you pretend the last century of law didn't happen. Federal courts have ruled many, many times about what is a "reasonable" question and what isn't. "Reasonableness" is defined in the context of some fundamental assumptions about the legal system — especially that judges generally won't act like sectarians based on their race and religion. Moreover, courts recognize that all judges had lives before becoming judges, and those lives necessarily involved a wide range of affiliations. Plus, the test is based on the perception of a reasonable person, a "well-informed, thoughtful, and objective observer, rather than the hypersensitive, cynical, and suspicious person." So. Not a Trumpalo, not a Clintonista.
So Trump's argument that a "Mexican" can't hear is case is bogus?
Beyond the shadow of a doubt based on a century of law. Many courts have considered and rejected the argument that a judge of a particular ethnicity, gender, or religion is inherently biased because of the nature of the case. In fact, the argument has been so repeatedly and thoroughly rejected that it's sanctionable to make it.
What other kinds of arguments have federal courts rejected?
You want me to do a lot of research, don't you? I'm going to cheat and summarize straight from the Rutter Guide: federal courts have rejected arguments that judges' impartiality could reasonably be questioned based on their pre-judicial law practice focus, their special expertise, their memberships in groups prior to appointment, their political views discussed prior to appointment, their giving lectures or writing on the topics involved in the case, their expression of opinions about propositions of law, their political donations before appointment, which President appointed them, where they went to school, and their chosen political party.
Wow. It sounds hard to force recusal. When have courts required it?
Again I cheated by looking at Rutter! Courts have ruled that judges should have recused themselves when they had pending employment offers from a party's law firm, when they had a close personal relationship with counsel for a case, when they had a close personal relationship with a party or witness, when the court's staff was employed by or very close to a party, when a close family member is a lawyer at a party's law firm, when the judge was a trustee of an entity that is a party, when the judge previously worked on the case as an attorney, when they had recently been a losing defendant in a lawsuit by a party, or when the judge has personal knowledge of disputed facts in the case as a witness.
In addition, sometimes a judge's comments about a case can require recusal when they show bias.
Really? But Trump says that Judge Curiel's rulings show bias. Doesn't that require recusal?
No. Bias has to be extrajudicial. That means that you can't recuse a judge just because the judge has concluded and expressed that your case is weak or that your lawyer is acting like a jackass in court. You absolutely can't recuse a judge because they ruled against you. Recusal is only required when a judge displays bias arising from knowledge or grounds from an inappropriate source, not from sitting on your case. To require recusal based on the judge's comments about his or her observations of the proceedings, the comments have to be truly extreme — "such a high degree of favoritism or antagonism to make a fair judgment impossible."
So: a wartime judge who says that "[o]ne must have a very judicial mind, indeed, not to be prejudiced against German Americans because their hearts are reeking with disloyalty.” That's extrajudicial bias requiring recusal. Saying that the evidence shows that the defendant behaved badly, or that the plaintiff's arguments lack merit? That's not.
But can't judge Curiel's impartiality be reasonably questioned now that Trump has repeatedly attacked him?
No. It's extremely well established — as well-established as anything in federal law — that you can't judge-shop by being a douche. A party's insults, criticisms, and even threats are not a valid basis for recusal. Otherwise you could judge-shop by attacking judges until you found one you liked.
What about Judge Curiel's membership in a Latino organization?
Leaving aside for the moment whether the attack is deliberately dishonest because it conflates a bar association with a political advocacy group, membership before becoming a judge isn't grounds for recusal. Moreover, membership in a religious organization is not grounds for recusal. Membership in bar associations and legal associations like the one at issue here has repeatedly been found not to require recusal. That's not just for ethnic organizations. So, for instance, membership in the Guild of Catholic Lawyers was not a basis for recusal in a suit against the New York Archdiocese. Hoatson v. New York Archdiocese, 280 Fed.Appx. 88 (2nd Cir. 2008).
I will note that calling an organization "the race," even if you don't mean it that way and the phrase has been used to mean other things and it's history is totally different and it's not the same thing at all so shut up, is kind of asking for trouble.
Even if one argues that Judge Curiel's membership in a Latino attorney organization might show bias, Trump's lawyers would have a problem: they'd be arguing that the alleged bias didn't arise until long after Judge Curiel started hearing the case. Trump's argument, to the extent it can be nailed down, is that Trump wants to build a wall and Judge Curiel is a member of a Latino organization and therefore Judge Curiel is biased. But Trump didn't start talking about building a wall until Judge Curiel had already been hearing the case for years. In general, a party can't manufacture bias through new conduct after the judge has been assigned. That stops parties from judge-shopping. So, for instance, if I don't like how my case is going before a Turkish-American federal judge who is a member of a Turkish-American group, I can't force a judge-switch by becoming a loud advocate for official recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
So Judge Curiel was right to refuse to recuse himself?
Judge Curiel hasn't refused because Trump's lawyers haven't made a motion for recusal, because they know it's without merit. Recusal motions are governed by Title 28, United States Code, section 144. If you make such a motion, the targeted judge looks at it to make sure it is timely and generally legally sufficient — that is, not facially ridiculous. If it clears that low hurdle, it goes to a different judge for determination, and the case is stayed in the meantime. Trump's made no such motion.
Do you think his attorneys will make such a motion?
So what's Trump doing?
Posturing and playing to crowds who don't like judges, or "Mexicans," or especially "Mexican" judges. Puerile "Alpha" bullshit.
Can't Judge Curiel just say "fuck this noise, I'm out" and recuse?
No. Federal judges have an affirmative obligation not to recuse themselves except for legally sufficient grounds. That stops the reverse of judge-shopping: ditching unpleasant, boring, or otherwise undesirable cases.
Maybe Trump and his supporters don't agree with this legal precedent?
Maybe they don't. But as far as I know Trump never got upset about federal recusal law until he ran for President. And I haven't heard him, or his supporters, argue that he's being oppressed by a century of wrongly-decided law; I've heard them make uninformed or deliberately false statements about what the law requires.