NY Judge Merchan exposed for making small but prohibited political donations to Biden, Democrats in 2020

April 7, 2023
Ben Marquis

Former President Donald Trump has accused New York Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the new criminal indictment case in Manhattan, of being politically biased against him, and that may not be an empty complaint.

As it turns out, Judge Merchan has made some small but nonetheless real partisan donations in the past, including to President Joe Biden, that may violate judicial ethics rules and necessitate his recusal from the case, Breitbart reported.

Political donations are prohibited for sitting judges

According to the New York Code of Judicial Conduct, Sec. 100.5(A)(1)(h) states that a "sitting judge" is barred from "directly or indirectly" engaging in any "prohibited political activity," which includes "soliciting funds for, paying an assessment to, or making a contribution to a political organization or candidate."

That is further bolstered by the annually updated Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook issued by the New York State Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, which includes a reminder that links to the above conduct code and states: "A sitting judge may not make political contributions at any time, even to a U.S. presidential candidate or to a federal congressional candidate outside of New York State (Opinion 11-146; 22 NYCRR 100.5[A][1][h])."

Then there is the American Bar Association's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Rule 4.1(A)(4), which states that a "judge or judicial candidate shall not: (4) solicit funds for, pay an assessment to, or make a contribution to a political organization or a candidate for public office."

Donations to Democrats in 2020

Those ethics rules clearly prohibit sitting judges from making any political contributions, even to presidential candidates, yet according to Federal Election Commission records, Judge Juan Merchan made three such political donations in July 2020.

Per the FEC, Merchan made a $15 donation to the Biden for President campaign via the Democrat-linked ActBlue donation platform on July 26, 2020.

That donation was followed the next day, July 27, 2020, with a pair of $10 donations through ActBlue to the Progressive Turnout Project, which works to increase Democratic voter turnout at the polls, and a subsidiary of that organization known as Stop Republicans, which, per Breitbart, is reportedly "dedicated to resisting the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s radical right-wing legacy."

To be sure, those donations are minuscule in the big scheme of things, and some might even dismiss them as "trivial" and unworthy of mention, but as the above-linked ethics rules make crystal clear, political donations of any amount, no matter how small, are considered prohibited and unethical.

Legal experts agree donations could be a problem

CNN reported on the combined $35 contributions to Democrats from Judge Merchan and quoted the network's senior legal analyst Elie Honig as saying, "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."

New York University legal ethics professor Stephen Gillers told the outlet, "The contribution to Biden and possibly the one to 'Stop Republicans' would be forbidden unless there is some other explanation that would allow them." However, given the "small sums" at issue here, he believed that the judge would simply be given a reminder of the rules if a formal complaint was filed and "absolutely not" be required to recuse himself.

CNN legal analyst Karen Friedman Agnifilo, who used to work as a prosecutor in the same Manhattan district attorney's office now prosecuting Trump, said, "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."

Mike Davis, a conservative judicial activist who previously served as the GOP's general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN of Judge Merchan, "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."

In reference to the former president, he added, "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."

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