Judge Juan 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 impartiality as he has come under attack by the former president as a “Trump-hating judge.”
“While the amounts here are minimal, it’s surprising that a sitting judge would make political donations of any size to a partisan candidate or cause,” said Elie Honig, a senior CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor.
According to federal election records, Merchan made the three donations in July 2020 through ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and causes.
Merchan contributed $15 earmarked for the Biden campaign, and made two $10 contributions, one earmarked to the Progressive Turnout Project, a voter outreach organization, and another to Stop Republicans, a subsidiary of the Progressive Turnout Project.
Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, said that New York, like most US jurisdictions, has adopted language from the American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from “soliciting funds for, paying an assessment to, or making a contribution to a political organization or candidate.”
“The contribution to Biden and possibly the one to ‘Stop Republicans’ would be forbidden unless there is some other explanation that would allow them,” Gillers said.
But Gillers said that the donation “would be viewed as trivial, especially given the small sums.” He said if a complaint was made, the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct would remind the judge of the rules.
Asked if this could be grounds for a legal challenge or recusal, Gillers said, “Absolutely not. This does not come anywhere near the kind of proof required for recusal.”
Trump has been attacking Merchan and his family, including his daughter, whose political consulting firm did work for the Biden campaign and now-Vice President Kamala Harris’ campaign. Trump has also complained about Merchan for presiding over the case against the Trump Organization, which was convicted on tax fraud charges late last year.
CNN’s John Miller reports that the New York Police Department is tracking numerous threats against Merchan but has not seen specific, credible threats.
An attorney for Trump on Thursday condemned those making threats against Merchan. Joe Tacopina, one of the lawyers representing Trump in the case, told CNN the threats were “appalling and we condemn anyone participating in such behavior.”
Trump lawyer Susan Necheles declined to comment on the donations. But the former president’s political allies are pointing to the contributions to argue the judge should remove himself from the case.
“He donated to Joe Biden’s campaign. He should get off this case. And this judge has a history, with President Trump, in prior cases,” Mike Davis, a former Republican chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and founder of a conservative judicial advocacy group, told CNN’s Pamela Brown. “He finds out that this judge actually donated to Biden’s campaign. So, that at least raises the appearance of impartiality – the appearance that this judge could not be impartial against President Trump.”
Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said that the political donations amount to an “unforced error” for Merchan.
“Judge Merchan has a reputation of being a fair down the middle judge, however, donating to a defendant’s political rival can cause the appearance of a conflict, even where there is none, and creates an unforced error in this case involving Trump,” she said.
A search of federal election databases does not turn up any additional political contributions for Merchan. New York state campaign finance records show that 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 that the court administration doesn’t monitor judges’ personal affairs. The decision to recuse from the case would be up to Merchan himself.
If he doesn’t, however, Trump’s lawyers could appeal the matter to a New York state appeals court.
A spokesperson for the courts said, “We decline to comment on pending cases.”
CNN’s Fredreka Schouten and Paula Reid contributed to this report.