A federal judge on Wednesday rejected Donald Trump ’s bid to move his hush-money criminal case from New York state court to federal court, ruling that the former president had failed to meet a high legal bar for changing jurisdiction.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein found that the allegations in the Manhattan case pertained to Trump’s personal life, not presidential duties that would have merited a move to federal court.
“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” Hellerstein wrote in a 25-page ruling. “Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a President’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the color of the President’s official duties.”
Hellerstein’s decision sets the stage for Trump to stand trial in state court in Manhattan as early as next spring, overlapping with the 2024 presidential primary season in what could be a frenetic stretch of legal action as the twice-indicted Republican seeks a return to the White House.
Separately, Trump is charged in federal court in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and impeding investigators. Prosecutors want that case to go to trial in December.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the hush-money case and fought to keep it in state court, said it was “very pleased” with Hellerstein’s decision. Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, declined comment. The ruling can be appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hellerstein signaled his decision at a June 27 hearing where he scoffed at defense claims that the alleged conduct at the root of Trump’s charges — reimbursing his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen as part of a scheme to bury affair allegations that arose during his first campaign — was within the “color of his office” as president.
In his ruling, the judge said evidence strongly supported the prosecution’s contention that the money paid to Cohen was reimbursement for a hush-money payment.
Trump, a Republican, pleaded not guilty April 4 in state court to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide reimbursements made to Cohen for his role in paying $130,000 to the porn actor Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.
Cohen also arranged for the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story about an alleged affair, which the supermarket tabloid then squelched in a dubious journalism practice known as “catch-and-kill.”
Trump denied having sexual encounters with either woman. His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and not part of any cover-up.
Trump’s lawyers asked in May for the federal court to take control of the hush-money case, contending he couldn’t be tried in state court because some of the alleged conduct occurred in 2017 while he was president, including checks he purportedly wrote while sitting in the Oval Office.
Federal officers including former presidents have the right to be tried in federal court for charges arising from “conduct performed while in office,” Trump’s lawyers argued.
A shift to federal court would’ve meant a more politically diverse jury pool — drawing not only from heavily Democratic Manhattan, where Trump is wildly unpopular, but also from suburban counties north of the city where he has more political support.
Matthew Colangelo, a senior counsel to District Attorney Alvin Bragg, argued nothing about the hush-money payments and reimbursements involved Trump’s official duties as president. He also disputed whether the legal definition of “federal officer” applies to a president or only to other members of the government.
U.S. law allows criminal prosecutions to be moved from state to federal court if they involve actions taken by federal government officials as part of their official duties, among other qualifications. Trump’s request was unprecedented because he’s the first former president ever charged with a crime.
If Hellerstein had sided with Trump and moved the case to federal court, the former president’s lawyers could’ve then tried to get the charges dismissed on the grounds that federal officials have immunity from prosecution over actions taken as part of their official job duties.
But the judge said that argument wouldn’t have flown either, finding that Trump had failed to explain “how hiring and making payments to a personal attorney to handle personal affairs carries out a constitutional duty.”
Aside from the legal arguments, Trump had a practical reason for seeking to move the case to federal court: He didn’t think he could get a fair shake in state court.
Trump has claimed New York’s state court system has been “very unfair” to him and called the state court judge presiding over the case, Juan Manuel Merchan, “a Trump-hating judge” with a family full of “Trump haters.”
Hellerstein rejected Trump’s argument that the indictment could be moved to federal court because it was “politically motivated” and the product of “state hostility.” Hellerstein said there was “no reason to believe that the New York judicial system would not be fair and give Trump equal justice under the law.” And he added that Trump had failed to show that the grand jury lacked a rational basis for the indictment.
Last month, Trump’s lawyers asked Merchan to step aside from the case, arguing that he’s biased in part because his daughter does political consulting work for some of Trump’s Democratic rivals. Merchan has yet to rule on the request. A state ethics advisory panel recently said he shouldn’t have to recuse himself.
Trump’s hush-money trial is scheduled to start in state court on March 25, 2024, in an increasingly crowded legal and political calendar for the Republican frontrunner. In the classified documents case, federal prosecutors have proposed a Dec. 11 trial date while Trump’s lawyers are seeking a delay until after next year’s election.
Meanwhile, two civil lawsuits against Trump are slated to go to trial in the coming months: in October, New York Attorney General Letitia James’ suit alleging he and his company fraudulently misstating the value of assets; and in January, a second trial involving writer E. Jean Carroll’s claim that he defamed her when he denied her allegations that he sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s.
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