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Latino judge attacked by Trump battled Mexican drug cartels as federal prosecutor

Since the fall of 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel has quietly presided over hundreds of cases from a spacious wood-paneled courtroom on the second floor of the federal courthouse in downtown San Diego, drawing little attention outside the tightknit federal legal community.

It’s a building that Curiel is familiar with, from his 13-year-long tenure as a narcotics prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego, eventually rising to chief of the unit.

There, from 1989 to 2002, he built a reputation as a tough, effective lawyer in charge of a special task force charged with dismantling the Arellano-Felix drug cartel — an assignment that earned him round-the-clock protection from the U.S. marshals service for a year while under a death threat from the cartel.

Now, Curiel finds himself facing a different kind of threat.

The bespectacled, soft-spoken judge has been the target of repeated verbal assaults on his ethnic background, competence and fairness from Donald J. Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president.

In a campaign appearance in San Diego on May 27, the candidate went on at length about two federal lawsuits filed against him and his real estate investing program. He said Curiel, who is presiding over those two class-action suits, was a “hater” and referred to the Indiana-born judge as a Mexican. 

“They ought to look into Judge Curiel,” he said.

The attacks continued this past week, with Trump telling the Wall Street Journal that Curiel’s ethnic heritage — his parents were Mexican immigrants — made him biased.

Trump also criticized Curiel’s membership in La Raza Lawyers Assn., apparently confusing the professional organization with an activist group that goes by a similar name.

A centerpiece of Trump’s campaign has been his vow to build a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and to deport immigrants here illegally. Trump contends that Curiel, given his ethnic background, has a built-in conflict of interest because of Trump’s advocacy of the border wall and deportations. 

Those attacks on Curiel have stunned legal observers, who say they threaten the independence of the judiciary, and outraged those who know Curiel in both in his previous career as a federal prosecutor and in his work as a judge in state courts in San Diego and the federal court.

“It’s offensive,” said Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego and longtime friend of Curiel. “We haven’t talked about this, because he doesn’t talk about his cases. But I’m angry.”

But, he said, Curiel probably isn’t.

The judge isn’t commenting on the Trump controversy, his office said Friday, citing judicial rules that prohibit judges speaking about cases pending in front of them.

It’s true that most lawyers are reluctant to criticize a sitting judge in public, concerned about offending that judge, or other judges. Even given that, opinions on Curiel from a cross-section of lawyers consistently point to an even demeanor, mild temperament and intelligence.

San Diego lawyer Candace Carroll headed a screening committee for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that reviewed and recommended applicants for federal judges, and which reviewed Curiel in 2011. The committee casts a wide net and interviews scores of people, she said.

“If you’re a jerk, opposing counsel will know that and tell the committee about it,” she said. “If you’re arrogant, we’ll hear arrogant over and over again. He was very highly recommended. No one could say a bad thing about him.”

Curiel is presiding over two class-action lawsuits filed against Trump over his now-defunct Trump University real estate seminars, for which some people paid up to $35,000.

One suit covers people who paid for Trump courses in Florida, California and New York. That case was filed in 2010, and is set for trial in November. Trump is expected to testify. The second suit, filed in 2013, is a civil racketeering allegation that covers all in the country who took a Trump University course.

The suits contend that attendees were duped into believing they would learn Trump’s real estate secrets from his handpicked instructors, at a university comparable to a top business school.

Instead, the suits say, the seminars were taught by unqualified instructors and were designed to extract as much money from attendees as possible, urging them to max out credit cards and using high-pressure sales tactics that emphasized “up-selling” attendees to get them to buy more expensive course offerings.

Trump and his legal team have said the claims are bogus, and that the vast majority of attendees were satisfied with the seminars.

Curiel is the third judge who has presided over the 2010 suit. He inherited it in early 2013, just a few months after he was sworn in to the federal bench.

At that time, the court record shows, Trump didn’t object to Curiel being assigned and didn’t ask him to recuse himself, a rare move in federal courts but not unheard of. In fact, a review of the nearly 700 docket entries lodged so far in both cases show no formal motion that questioned his impartiality or fairness.

Trump nonetheless has been critical on the campaign trail and has said the case should have been thrown out long ago. Trump University hasn’t accepted any new students since 2010, but this week — in the wake of Curiel unsealing hundreds of pages of records, many of which paint an unflattering picture of the business and how it was run — Trump said he would reopen it after he wins the suit.

Curiel worked as a federal prosecutor in San Diego from 1989 to 2002. For five years, from 1996 on, he was the coordinator of the Arellano-Felix task force, staffed with four other prosecutors and two dozen federal agents. It was during that time that investigators were told by an informant that Benjamin Arellano Felix had approved a “hit,” or murder contract, on Curiel, according to Vega. For a year, Curiel lived under guard. He was moved from his home to a Navy base in San Diego, then for a time assigned to San Francisco and Washington until the threat abated, Vega said.

Curiel played a major role in a crucial step in the campaign against the Arellanos when he worked to get top cartel lieutenant Arturo “Kitty” Paez Martinez extradited from Mexico in 2001. It was the first time that a Mexican citizen had been extradited to face charges here — a precedent that cleared the way for the continuing extradition of drug figures in the 15 years since.

“It was an absolutely critical moment,” said Nathan Jones, an expert on drug policy who has studied the Arellano Felix cartel extensively. “He’s one of the first major traffickers they get, and he ended up giving a window into the whole organization.”

Paez’s information eventually became a 104-page affidavit that was used in extradition requests for other drug leaders, including the Arellanos, in the following years.

“He broke open the case for them,” Jones said.

In 2002, Curiel moved to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, again prosecuting major narcotics cases. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the San Diego County Superior Court in 2006.

There, the former drug prosecutor got a new assignment — working for three years in family court. In an average week, he dealt with some 100 cases involving child support, alimony and who gets the silverware.

Family law attorney Laura Miller appeared before Curiel several times. She said at first the family law bar was concerned that an inexperienced judge was assigned to the often contentious court. Curiel quickly put that to rest.

She said he was composed and calm at even the most charged hearings.

“He really understood the importance and significance of making rulings that had a direct effect on people’s children, or their finances,” she said. “He was extraordinarily fair.”

In November 2011 Curiel — a Democrat — was nominated to a seat on the San Diego federal bench by President Obama, then was confirmed by the full Senate the following August.

Some criminal defense lawyers carefully watched how the former drug prosecutor would adapt to his new, more powerful assignment in the same courthouse where he had pursued drug traffickers.

“When he got appointed, there was some trepidation about a career prosecutor who had himself been threatened by the cartel,” said San Diego criminal defense attorney Jeremy Warren. “But as it turns out, he’s been a fair, open-minded and independent judge who’s a pleasure to appear in front of.”

Trump has also attacked Curiel by saying the judge can’t be fair because he is a former colleague of Jason Forge, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who worked in the same U.S. attorney’s office as Curiel. Forge told The Wall Street Journal that while he “crossed paths” with Curiel in the office a decade ago, there is no conflict.

Curiel is married to a federal probation official and has one child. He is also a board member of the Urban Discovery Academy, a charter school in East Village in downtown San Diego.

Vega and Curiel have known each other since ninth grade. Both men come from East Chicago, Ind. They were born on the same day, in the same year, and in the same hospital there.

Though they took different paths, both ended up in the U.S. attorney’s office here. Vega said his longtime friend won’t let the Trump attacks affect him.

“I honestly don’t think it’s bothering him,” he said. “He’s going to do his job, stay focused and not let this have any impact at all.”

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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