Within a few weeks of winning the White House, President-elect Donald Trump could face another group of U.S. citizens, a federal jury in California, courtesy of a lawsuit by former students of his now-defunct Trump University who claim they were defrauded by a series of real-estate seminars. A hearing in federal court in San Diego is set for Thursday, and the trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 28, barring any delays or if Trump decides to settle the case.
While presidents enjoy immunity from lawsuits arising from their official duties, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that this shield does not extend to acts alleged to have taken place prior to taking office. The 1997 ruling came in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against President Bill Clinton by Paula Jones, which was settled before it went to trial.
Lawyers said they could think of no similar situation like the one now involving Trump.
“I’m certain there is nothing comparable to this,” said Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School.
Lawyers for both Trump and the plaintiffs declined to comment on Wednesday.
Dershowitz said the Supreme Court also held that a case cannot be delayed just because the defendant is president, though judges are still free to grant reasonable delays to any party.
Miami trial consultant Sandy Marks, who is not involved in the case, said he thought Trump might ask the presiding judge, Gonzalo Curiel, to postpone the trial in an effort to settle the case before taking office.
“I think the judge would be foolhardy not to give him a short (delay),” said Marks, “which would give him a chance to resolve the case with all these people and put it behind him.”
Trump repeatedly claimed on the campaign trail that he would win the lawsuit, and he accused Curiel of being biased against him because of his campaign promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico. The judge was born in Indiana to Mexican parents.
At the hearing on Thursday, lawyers will argue pre-trial motions, including one by Trump to block potential jurors from hearing comments made or publicized during the campaign, such as those about the judge. Lawyers for the students have argued the comments could help jurors assess Trump’s credibility as a witness.
Trump is listed as defense witness in the case and could be called to testify by the plaintiffs as well. He was previously deposed by the students’ lawyers.
“Jury Consultant’s Nightmare”
Claims against Trump over the seminars date to 2010, with two class actions filed in federal court in San Diego and another case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on behalf of students who claim they were misled into paying as much as $35,000 each to learn worthless real estate investing “secrets” from instructors “hand-picked” by Trump.
Trump has admitted he did not hand-pick instructors, but has argued the claim was marketing language not meant to be taken literally. He claims most students were happy with their courses.
If the trial goes forward, several legal experts said it would be hard to seat an impartial jury, since so many people already have strong opinions about the president-elect.
Parties often hire specialized jury consultants to pick jurors, but New York lawyer Robert Anello said they were not infallible. “If experienced pollsters can’t get it right,” he said, “how can a jury consultant who is not spending as much time studying the demographics?”
In an interview a day before the election, Jeffrey Goldman, a lawyer for Trump in the New York case, said the media’s “drumbeat of distortion” about Trump University would make it hard to find impartial jurors.
Several experts noted that jurors, who will answer a questionnaire in addition to being questioned by the lawyers and the judge, are generally taken at their word when they say they can be impartial. Boston jury consultant Edward Schwartz said he expects both sides to make an effort to vet jurors by their public social media postings.
Dershowitz noted that San Diego, though located in deep-blue California, is not as politically monolithic as, say, San Francisco. It has an ethnically diverse population and also has a large military presence.
“This is a jury consultant’s nightmare to pick in a case like this,” said Dershowitz. “It will be taught in jury consulting school.”