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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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NY judge temporarily lifts gag orders in Trump Org civil fraud case

Trump's team successfully argued the gag orders violated their First Amendment rights.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A New York judge on Thursday temporarily lifted a pair of gag orders against Donald Trump and his legal team in the former president’s $250 million civil fraud trial.

Earlier Thursday, Trump’s lawyers filed a petition in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, claiming the gag orders from Judge Arthur Engoron barring the former president from making public comments about the judge's staff were unconstitutional in nature. 

Associate Justice David Friedman agreed. After arguments Thursday afternoon, Friedman issued a momentary stay of the orders’ enforcement pending a full appeal.

“I am pleased to see the appellate court restore some much needed respect for constitutional rights in this political circus being orchestrated and enabled by the state Attorney General’s office,” Trump lawyer Alina Habba said in a statement following Friedman’s ruling.

Friedman cited concerns over “constitutional and statutory rights” in his brief order. A panel will make a final call on the gag orders on Nov. 27. Until then, Trump and his legal team are free to say what they wish.

In their petition, Trump’s lawyers argued that the gag orders are a blatant violation of their First Amendment right to free speech, and that Engoron’s orders “casts serious doubt on his ability to function as an impartial finder of fact” in the bench trial.

“On its face, the gag order prevents any speech, no matter how innocuous or relevant, about any member of Justice Engoron’s staff,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in the filing. “As applied to President Trump, it also prevents a presidential candidate from commenting on the public conduct and possible ethical violations of a critical member of Justice Engoron’s chambers, who sits right beside him on the bench throughout the trial.” 

Trump and his lawyers have complained on numerous occasions about the clerk’s “possible ethical violations” both in and out of court. It was a notable portion of their motion for a mistrial filed this week. While Engoron has repeatedly smacked down any claims of bias by him and his staff, Trump’s lawyers argue that they shouldn’t be restricted from raising such questions. 

“Only a clear and present danger of a serious, substantive evil can justify such an infringement on the freedom of speech the First Amendment and the New York Constitution protects,” they wrote. 

But Engoron, who is overseeing the fraud trial against Trump, has been very protective of his staff since the trial began. He said he issued the gag orders in the first place to ensure their safety in what’s been a highly covered and politically polarizing trial.

“The threat of, and actual, violence resulting from heated political rhetoric is well-documented,” Engoron wrote in the second gag order ruling. “Since the commencement of this bench trial, my chambers have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters and packages.”

Engoron slapped the former president with a gag order in October after he shared a disparaging post about the judge’s law clerk on social media. He’s since violated that order twice — once after Engoron discovered the post was still live on Trump’s campaign website, and again after Trump made an ambiguous media comment about someone seated “beside” the judge. 

Trump has been fined $15,000 in total for the pair of violations. 

This month, Engoron imposed an additional gag order to Trump’s attorneys after they repeatedly complained about the law clerk on the record in open court. 

“I hereby order that all counsel are prohibited from making any public statements, in or out of court, that refer to any confidential communications, in any form, between my staff and me,” Engoron wrote in his three-page ruling on Nov. 3. 

The gag orders notably extended to all parties and attorneys, not just the defense.

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