Amid escalating legal woes, the former President Trump has been unleashing frequent and targeted tirades against judges. Employing his familiar tactics, Trump has criticized the judge presiding over the civil case involving E. Jean Carroll, labeling him as a “Clinton-appointed judge.” He has also accused the judge overseeing the hush money case brought against him by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of harboring animosity towards him.
Trump’s habit of questioning the motives and validity of court rulings is not new. However, it gains significance in light of his 2024 presidential campaign, which includes promises of “retribution” for those who perceive government wrongdoing.
When Trump faced indictment in Manhattan for his alleged involvement in a hush money scheme during the 2016 campaign, he wasted no time in portraying the New York state judge as politically biased. Trump took to his Truth Social platform, repeatedly referring to Judge Juan Merchan as a “Trump Hating Judge” and asserting that Merchan bore animosity towards him.
Trump’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, stated that he had no reason to doubt Merchan’s credibility when questioned about these remarks.
In recent times, Trump has targeted federal Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over the civil case brought by Carroll, the writer who accused Trump of rape in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. Following a jury finding him liable for defamation and sexual abuse, Trump posted on social media, referring to Judge Kaplan as a “Clinton-appointed Judge” who possessed an implausible level of hatred towards him. Trump further criticized the venue of the trial, labeling it as “completely partisan” and claiming that Kaplan should have recused himself.
Trump has previously criticized the judge overseeing the Paul Manafort case, disparaged judges ruling against him as “Obama judges,” and insinuated that a judge’s Mexican heritage might influence their bias against him.
These attacks on judges have raised concerns within the legal community. Observers note that while any defendant has the right to challenge decisions they deem unfair, Trump’s influence and resources make such endeavors more feasible for him than for most individuals. Irresponsible attacks in social media, disseminating misinformation or untruths for partisan gains, undermine the justice system and the rule of law, warns Marcy Kahn, former judge and head of the New York City bar’s Task Force on the Rule of Law. She emphasizes the potential dangers when influential figures fail to exercise restraint and mislead their followers.
Threats against judges have been on the rise in recent years, mirroring the surge in threatening communications received by all government officials. Following the events of January 6th and allegations of a stolen election, the number of threats against federal judges reached approximately 4,500 in 2021. The U.S. Marshals Service, responsible for tracking such threats, reported a further increase to over 5,000 in 2022.
Merchan and his family faced death threats after Trump’s criticism, leading to heightened security measures and disruptions at the courthouse. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office even removed staff bios from their website due to the episode’s impact.
Moreover, bomb threats interrupted the commencement of the $250 million civil litigation filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James against the Trump Organization and the Trump family.
Susan Kohlmann, president of the New York City bar, emphasizes that these disruptions extend beyond individual cases or courthouses. She expresses concerns about potential repercussions, where individuals considering a career within the legal system, including judges and jurors, may hesitate due to the serious threats posed to them and their families.
As Trump continues his pursuit of another term in the White House, he has become increasingly aggressive in his mission to dismantle the “deep state.” He vows to be the voice, warrior, and justice for
those who have been wronged and betrayed, promising retribution on their behalf.
While Trump’s rhetoric and disregard for the norms surrounding the justice system raise alarm among Democrats and may dissuade some independent voters, only a small number of Republicans have raised concerns about it during the primary race.
Asa Hutchinson, a 2024 presidential candidate and one of the few Republican governors to criticize Trump during his tenure, emphasized in a recent CNN interview that voters should consider Trump’s legal problems and attacks on the judiciary. He stressed the importance of the rule of law and the justice system, describing them as the envy of the world, and warned against leaders who undermine and disrespect them.
Though frustrations are not uncommon among those involved in the legal system, few individuals express their grievances as publicly and to such a wide audience as Trump does. Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert in legal ethics, points out that it is unseemly for judges to respond directly, especially if they are presiding over a pending case. Responding could raise questions about their impartiality and fairness. Consequently, judges strive to maintain an appearance of impartiality, even if they may be personally affected by such attacks.
In response to attacks on the judiciary, bar associations like the New York City bar often issue statements calling for respect for the legal system and its actors when they are targeted. In one instance, Merchan granted a request from Bragg’s team to prohibit Trump from posting evidence in the case on social media. However, Trump remains free to discuss the case itself and express his opinions about the judge on social media platforms.
Green suggests that Trump’s media strategy might be influenced by factors beyond the trial itself. Playing in the court of public opinion and fundraising for his campaign could be significant considerations for him, potentially overshadowing strategic trial approaches. Green notes that while it might be difficult to see the benefit of angering the judge, Trump might count on the judge’s inability to retaliate against him. Trump’s focus appears to be on his campaign and fundraising, rather than solely on the trial.
The disruptions caused by Trump’s attacks extend far beyond individual cases or courthouses, raising concerns about the future of the legal system. Threats against judges and government officials have a chilling effect, dissuading potential candidates from pursuing careers within the legal system due to fears for their safety and that of their families.