Former George W. Bush administration attorney general Alberto Gonzales penned an op-ed in the Washington Post today, giving Donald Trump some cover in his rampage against a Mexican American judge presiding over the lawsuit against Trump University.
It is crucial to understand the real issue in this matter. I am not judging whether Curiel is actually biased against Trump. Only he knows the answer to that question. I am not saying that I would be concerned about him presiding over a case in which I was a litigant. And if I were a litigant who was concerned about the judge’s impartiality, I certainly would not deal with it in a public manner as Trump has, because it demeans the integrity of the judicial office and thus potentially undermines the independence of the judiciary, especially coming from a man who could be president by this time next year. But none of these issues is the test. The test is whether there is an “appearance of impropriety” under the facts as they reasonably appear to a litigant in Trump’s position.
Certainly, Curiel’s Mexican heritage alone would not be enough to raise a question of bias (for all we know, the judge supports Trump’s pledge to better secure our borders and enforce the rule of law). As someone whose own ancestors came to the United States from Mexico, I know ethnicity alone cannot pose a conflict of interest.
But there may be other factors to consider in determining whether Trump’s concerns about getting an impartial trial are reasonable. Curiel is, reportedly, a member of a group called La Raza Lawyers of San Diego. Trump’s aides, meanwhile, have indicated that they believe Curiel is a member of the National Council of La Raza, a vocal advocacy organization that has vigorously condemned Trump and his views on immigration. The two groups are unaffiliated, and Curiel is not a member of NCLR. But Trump may be concerned that the lawyers’ association or its members represent or support the other advocacy organization. Coupled with that question is the fact that in 2014, when he certified the class-action lawsuit against Trump, Curiel appointed the Robbins Geller law firm to represent plaintiffs. Robbins Geller has paid $675,000 in speaking fees since 2009 to Trump’s likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, and to her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Curiel appointed the firm in the case before Trump entered the presidential race, but again, it might not be unreasonable for a defendant in Trump’s position to wonder who Curiel favors in the presidential election.
Gonzales makes the case Trump should be making. It’s not a question of Curiel’s Hispanic heritage. It’s the web of his connections that gives the appearance of bias in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Republicans.
Meanwhile, the entire exercise of trashing Curiel is all about distracting everyone from the flim-flam tactics and outright fraud that’s been exposed in the Trump University lawsuit. It’s a time-honored political tactic, so Trump isn’t doing anything any other politician wouldn’t do.
He better hope his distractions work.