Who Is Gonzalo Curiel? The Federal Judge Attacked By Donald Trump

Jun 7, 2016
Originally published on June 8, 2016 3:53 pm
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Donald Trump's comments about a federal judge have put Republicans in a tight spot. The party's presumptive presidential nominee has been called to task for his remarks about Judge Judge Gonzalo Curiel who is presiding over a class-action lawsuit involving the now-defunct Trump University.

Late this afternoon, the candidate issued a statement saying that he does not feel that - and this is a quote - one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial. But Trump continued to question whether he was receiving a fair trial. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Ever since judge Curiel unsealed documents in the fraud case, Trump has been railing about him, characterizing the Indiana-born judge as a hater who's of Mexican heritage and therefore inherently biased against the billionaire, or, as he put it on CNN...


DONALD TRUMP: He's Mexican. We're building a wall between here and Mexico.

TOTENBERG: Over the weekend, Trump upped the ante, saying that he would quite possibly have the same view if the judge were a Muslim American. Democrats immediately condemned the remarks, seeking to link Republicans up for election to Trump while Republicans squirmed in an effort to walk a line between denouncing the remarks but not the candidate. Here, for example, is House Speaker Paul Ryan this morning...


PAUL RYAN: Claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. It's absolutely unacceptable.

TOTENBERG: ...And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this afternoon.


MITCH MCCONNELL: It's time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message.

TOTENBERG: Those comments echoed other Republicans, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio on Orlando station WFTV.


MARCO RUBIO: I think it's wrong. He needs to stop saying it, and there shouldn't be any sort of ethnicity, religious or racial test for what kind of judges should hear what kind of cases.

TOTENBERG: But none of them was willing to disavow Trump as the GOP candidate. A dispirited sounding Rubio was perhaps more candid than most.


RUBIO: This is not the choice I wanted us to have. It's just the choice we have, and I think - and I'm not going to be someone that asks people to stay home.

TOTENBERG: This afternoon, Trump issued a statement saying his comments had been, quote, "misconstrued as an attack against people of Mexican heritage." Trump added that he is friends with and employs thousands of people of Mexican and Hispanic descent. The candidate also said he would not be commenting further on the matter.

So who is judge Curiel? After 10 years in private practice in Indiana and California, he spent 17 years as a federal prosecutor in Southern California, rising to chief of narcotics enforcement in San Diego. In the late '90s, when he was leading a joint task force to take down a notorious Tijuana drug cartel, law enforcement authorities got credible information that the cartel was planning to assassinate him. Curiel's boss at the time was U.S. Attorney Gregory Vega.

GREGORY VEGA: At that point, the Marshals Service - the United States Marshal Service, you know, removed judge Curiel from his home and for a year had him live on a Navy base here in San Diego and then, on separate occasions, in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., outside of the danger area.

TOTENBERG: Vega, a longtime Curiel friend, says it's ironic that a man who put his life at risks to fight the scourge of drugs from from Mexico is being portrayed as incapable of being fair because of his Mexican heritage. Curiel left the U.S. Attorneys Office in 2006 when California's Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the state court bench. Five years later, President Obama named him to the Federal District Court in San Diego. At his confirmation hearing, Curiel had this to say about his heritage.


GONZALO CURIEL: My parents came here from Mexico with the dream of providing their children opportunities, and they've been able to do that with the opportunities that this country has to offer.

TOTENBERG: On the bench, Curiel has a reputation as completely fair, highly skilled and legally sophisticated according to the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary which surveyed lawyers who practiced before him. As the current controversy has unfolded, the judges followed the rules of judicial conduct and declined all comment. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.