McClatchy Washington Bureau | JUSTCE SOTOMAYER
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s far-flung business operations might come before myriad Hispanic judges even as he raises claims that at least one might be biased against him because of his tough posture against Mexico.
In Nevada, U.S. District Judge Gloria M. Navarro is overseeing a case in which Trump Organization lawyers and their opponents insulted one another.
In Florida, U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga is overseeing a settlement reached with aggrieved employees of the Trump National Doral resort.
And just last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined her Supreme Court colleagues in considering a case brought against Trump Entertainment Resorts.
The results, in these and other cases, have varied. But taken together, the intersection of frequent Trump-related litigation with a federal judiciary in which more than 100 Hispanic or Latino judges serve makes the comments by the presumptive GOP presidential nominee even more significant.
“If you accept his proposition that no Mexican-American judge could ever hear a lawsuit against the Trump administration and then he said Muslim judges, there’s no stopping point,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, said in an interview Monday.
Trump put the ethnicity of judges into play with his assertion, repeated several times, that Southern California-based U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel has an “absolute conflict” in a Trump University lawsuit because he is “of Mexican heritage.”
“I’m building a wall,” Trump said in a Wall Street Journal interview. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”
Curiel, a former federal prosecutor who was born in Indiana, has ruled against Trump’s interests several times in the class action lawsuit brought by disgruntled former clients of the now-closed Trump University. Curiel, among other actions, ordered the release of internal university documents that shed embarrassing light on Trump’s business.
“If he was giving me a fair ruling, I wouldn’t say that,” Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper, again citing Curiel’s background. “I think that’s why he’s doing it.”
Trump followed up by commenting Sunday that “it’s possible” a Muslim judge also might be biased against him because of his political call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The persistent litigation that has accompanied Trump’s various businesses has, in fact, brought both favorable and unfavorable rulings by Hispanic or Latino judges. The judges include those of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, among others; their rulings involve many cases that are now closed, as well as some that remain active.
Last Tuesday, for instance, the Supreme Court declined to grant a petition by UNITE HERE Local 54 challenging a lower court’s ruling in favor of Trump Entertainment Resorts. Neither Sotomayor, the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic heritage, nor any of her colleagues publicly disagreed with the decision.
Sotomayor, born in New York City to Puerto Rican-born parents, is one of 124 Hispanic or Latino federal judges serving, according to the most recent tally by the Federal Judicial Center. A total of 857 appellate and district court judges have been authorized by Congress.
On occasion, judges are challenged on the basis of personal identity. These challenges fall short. Same-sex marriage opponents, for instance, failed to replace a gay San Francisco-based federal district judge who struck down California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.
“Legally, he is absolutely wrong in saying that it’s a conflict of interest,” Chemerinsky said, referring to Trump’s rationale. “African-American judges hear challenges to discrimination suits. Women judges can hear challenges to sex discrimination suits.”
One Hispanic federal jurist, New York-based Judge Analisa Torres, heard a lawsuit brought by women who claimed the Trump Model Management agency had lured foreign models to the United States with false promises of a glamorous life.
Last March, Torres, a New York native who is of Puerto Rican descent, sided with Trump and dismissed the case.
Navarro, a Las Vegas native of Cuban descent, has served as a Nevada-based judge since 2010, giving her multiple opportunities to adjudicate Trump-related litigation.
One lawsuit, for instance, was brought by family members who claimed they were injured when an elevator at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas fell more than 20 stories. Trump’s lawyers first succeeded in moving the complaint into federal court, where it was assigned to Navarro.
Her subsequent rulings have struck a balance. She rejected Trump’s attorneys’ claims that their legal opponents’ behavior was “vexatious” and “annoying,” and also rejected the other attorneys’ claims that the defendants’ behavior was “criminal” and “contemptuous.”
The Trump businesses, moreover, were ultimately dropped from the family’s lawsuit, with an appellate court ruling last December that Navarro was correct that there was “no direct evidence of negligence by Trump.”
In the case brought by Trump’s employees in Florida, by contrast, Altonaga last March rejected the Trump attorneys’ bid to summarily dismiss the lawsuit. The decision by Altonaga, the first Cuban-American appointed to the federal bench, prompted an eventual settlement.
“The parties amicably resolved all disputed claims in this matter,” attorneys advised Altonaga last month.
Trump, in a conference call with reporters Monday, ordered his supporters to continue questioning Curiel’s credibility and to malign reporters, Bloomberg News reported.
The news agency said a “clearly irritated Trump” told his supporters to attack journalists who ask questions about the lawsuit and his comments about the judge.
“The people asking the questions — those are the racists,” Trump said. “I would go at ’em.”
Michael Doyle and Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Washington Bureau