Judge Merchan faces heavy task with historic Trump sentencing in July

Gun Rights

Welcome back, Deadline: Legal Newsletter readers. I concluded Wednesday’s special edition by noting that we could have a verdict by week’s end. As you’ve probably heard by now, that’s what happened. The New York jury found Donald Trump guilty Thursday of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.

Now what? Sentencing is set for July 11, days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, where the party of “law and order” is poised to anoint the four-times indicted, once (so far) convicted criminal defendant as its presidential nominee. Manhattan prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers will submit their sentencing positions to Judge Juan Merchan, who still has this heavy task before him after presiding over the historic trial.

Prison isn’t mandatory, and it may not even be likely for the defendant, who will be 78 by his sentencing date. This is Trump’s first conviction, and the charges are the lowest-level felonies in New York state. Merchan has options including prison up to four years, probation or other relatively minor punishments. I’d be a little surprised if prosecutors don’t seek jail, but the decision to impose it still comes down to Merchan.

There’s also the question of when Trump would serve any time imposed. Even if the judge opts for incarceration, the defendant will likely remain free pending an appeal that won’t be resolved before the November election. As with all of Trump’s criminal cases, the election is a crucial factor, even more so for his three other cases that carry stricter penalties — two of which (the federal ones) Trump will likely use his presidential power to crush if he wins.

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Those other cases are still pending … technically. None of them have trial dates. An ongoing pretrial appeal could complicate the Georgia state case (which presidents can’t dismiss). In Florida, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, is still making weird moves in the defendant’s favor, this week denying (for now) the government’s request to stop Trump from spreading dangerous lies about law enforcement. And in Washington, the Supreme Court hasn’t decided the immunity appeal holding up the federal election interference case.

We learned this week that Justice Samuel Alito won’t recuse himself from that case or another key Jan. 6-related appeal. In illogical, self-pitying letters to congressional Democrats calling for him to step aside, Alito demurred. That’s despite the appearance of impropriety sparked by flags flying at his homes that Capitol rioters also carried.

Trump saluted Alito’s obstinance in a social media post the day before he was found guilty of 34 felonies, congratulating the justice on his “INTELLIGENCE, COURAGE, and ‘GUTS’ to refuse stepping aside” (true to his avant-garde approach, the former president only put “GUTS” in quotes but not the other heroic qualities).  

Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts declined Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats’ invitation to meet on the Alito matter. The chief’s logic didn’t fare much better than Alito’s, claiming refuge behind “separation of powers” principles while skirting his leadership role atop the nation’s judiciary. “Moreover, the format proposed — a meeting with leaders of only one party who have expressed an interest in matters currently pending before the Court — simply underscores that participating in such a meeting would be inadvisable,” Roberts wrote. By that reasoning, Republicans’ refusal to address ethics issues makes it less possible — and even improper, by Roberts’ telling — for Democrats to do so.

And those Republicans? They’re up in arms over the jury’s unanimous verdict against their de facto leader. House Speaker Mike Johnson told Fox News that the Supreme Court “should step in” to help Trump. It’ll be a while before his impending appeal could reach the justices — after going through state court — but they’re already helping him in their handling of his immunity claim.  

While still sitting on that crucial immunity case, the justices handed down three unrelated decisions this week, including one involving the National Rifle Association and the First Amendment. The high court is set to issue decisions again Thursday. Buckle up for a busy June as the justices issue the term’s remaining rulings on a range of issues including abortion, guns and, yes, the Trump immunity and Jan. 6 obstruction cases that could determine whether and when the former president is criminally tried next.

Have any questions or comments for me? I’d love to hear from you! Please email deadlinelegal@nbcuni.com for a chance to be featured in a future newsletter.

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