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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Trump U Trial Coming Despite Election Win

SAN DIEGO (CN) — President-elect Donald Trump heads to trial in the first of two class actions against his now-defunct real estate school Trump University later this month, and his attorneys will be in court Thursday to tell a federal judge why election fodder should be barred as evidence.

Low v. Trump University kicks off the Monday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. The six-year-old case is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — cases on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel's docket. Curiel denied Trump's request months ago to delay the trial date until after a possible inauguration, opting to schedule it for between the election and official transfer of executive power.

Sonny Low and the other plaintiffs sued Trump in 2010, saying they spent upwards of $35,000 to learn insider real estate secrets from instructors purported to be handpicked by Trump. It turned out Trump had little involvement in Trump University, and his attorneys said the school relied on "sales puffery common in advertising" to capitalize on Trump's celebrity and name brand.

At Thursday's hearing, Trump's lead attorney Daniel Petrocelli will implore Curiel to block any election fodder said by or about Trump during his stump for president from coming into evidence. If Curiel approves the blanket request, jurors won't hear the comments Trump has said on Twitter and in interviews about his taxes, sexual assault allegations, failing casinos and other campaign issues he was heavily criticized for during his stump for president.

But it also means blocking potential evidence relevant to the case, including comments he's made about Trump University and derogatory comments he made about Curiel's Mexican heritage, and his assertion Curiel could not preside over a fair trial because of Trump's campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport immigrants.

The comments directed at Curiel caused many Republican leaders to denounce Trump's questioning of the court. Pepperdine law professor Jason Blakely previously told Courthouse News in a phone interview Trump has "called into question" procedures and branches of government, essentially blurring the lines between the judiciary and executive.

"He's created zones of unaccountability around his language," Blakely said. "That's what's striking about his request: he's trying to essentially create unaccountability around his language in the courts."

Blakely said Trump's comments about Curiel ring alarm bells over how he'd use his executive powers.

"Trump verbally is willing to blur the lines between the executive and the judiciary," Blakely said. "Is he going to continue to try to influence the courts? How much of that will actually play out in terms of judicial appointments and using the presidential pulpit to discredit judges?"

The plaintiffs in the Low case decried Trump's motion, saying the request requires "the court create a new category of immunity to protect him from himself and would essentially "rig" the trial by "hiding the jury from his own words."

The vagueness of Trump's blanket request should be grounds for denial, the plaintiffs argue, since it is "practically boundless" and does not specify what evidence Trump and his legal team want to exclude.

Many legal experts have speculated Trump will likely settle before the Nov. 28 trial date, although there was no immediate indication he would do so following the election.

University of Utah law professor Christopher Peterson penned an academic paper in September about how the fraud allegations against Donald Trump's real estate school rise to the level of impeachable offenses, even though — if proven — it occurred before he was elected. Peterson told Courthouse News in a phone interview following the election if he were advising Trump, he'd work to get the case settled as soon as possible.

"If I were advising President-elect Trump, I would encourage him to move heaven and earth to spare the country the spectacle of a president facing a fraud trial," Peterson said.

"As it stands, this trial will cast a shadow on the early days of his presidency and will be a major distraction if he tries to bring the country together and pursue his agenda."

He said Trump's previous resolve to see the case to trial and a countersuit he filed against a former plaintiff were "typical examples of his litigious bullying."

"In my view, if the allegations of fraud and racketeering are true, there is still a legally sufficient case to impeach him. It's just whether there is the political will to do so," Peterson said.

Thursday's hearing on motions to exclude evidence is set to begin at 1:30 p.m.

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