How A New York Judge Is Trying To Ensure Trump Gets A Fair Jury

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NEW YORK — Former President Donald Trump alleges there is no way he can get a fair trial in New York City, the liberal hometown he turned his back on five years ago in favor of a conservative enclave in sun-soaked South Florida. He faces 34 felony counts in Manhattan for allegedly falsifying business records related to a hush money payment dating back to his 2016 campaign.

The stakes are high: A guilty verdict in this historic trial could result in prison time for Trump.

His fate will rest in the hands of 12 Manhattanites — seven of whom have been selected so far in a time-consuming process.

Trump has been framing the situation as inherently biased against him. “There is NO WAY I can be given a Fair (Biden) Trial on Monday with Judge Juan Merchan, who is totally conflicted and corrupt, presiding,” Trump wrote on Truth Social the day before jury selection started.

But Merchan has been scrupulously transparent and has accommodated the one-of-a-kind defendant sitting in his courtroom with Secret Service protection in addition to his coterie of lawyers.

On Tuesday, the process led to scenes most people would probably find absurd: A single potential juror being led alone into the courtroom to face a former president, a judge, a bunch of attorneys and some members of the press to explain a Facebook post from four-plus years ago. That same type of individual grilling happened several times, a sign that the process in this high-profile trial is, by necessity, more rigorous than usual.

Ultimately, the panel will consist of 12 jurors and six alternates. But the pool of potential jurors for Trump’s trial numbers in the hundreds. Batches of 96 jurors are brought in at a time and asked to raise their hands if they consider themselves too opinionated to give Trump a fair shake. In the first batch, most people did so, and Merchan excused them without further questioning. This is unusual: Judges know that people try to skirt jury duty and will typically subject the potential juror to some questioning, at least, if they claim they aren’t up for it.

Whereas juror questionnaires in Merchan’s courtroom are usually composed of about 15 questions, Trump’s juror questionnaire is 42 questions, including several with multiple parts. The potential jurors are asked about their family, their job, their media habits, their social media habits, whether they have been to a Trump rally, whether they have opinions on campaign contribution limits and whether they have opinions on how Trump is being treated in Merchan’s courtroom. Whether the individual believes they can fairly and properly execute the duties of a juror is the subject of several questions.

By the time potential jurors get to voir dire (the phase where they are questioned by lawyers for both sides), “there really shouldn’t be that much left” to find out about them, Merchan said on Monday.

So far, the people selected represent a cross-section of New York City. They have lived here anywhere from a few years to a lifetime. They are married, single, young, old, Black, white, uptown, downtown, native New Yorkers and transplants from elsewhere. None described themselves as an overtly political person — one man said he was a little embarrassed to admit he doesn’t really “follow the news that closely.” One woman replied she “doesn’t really care for the news.” Several appeared ambivalent about the former president.

Attorneys for Trump and for the prosecution each have 10 passes they can use to strike a potential juror for any reason.

Outside of those passes, attorneys for each side can explain to the judge why they want to strike individual people, and they allow Merchan to be the final arbiter. They can do that as many times as they want — or as many times as Merchan will tolerate. Indeed, Trump’s attorneys delved into the social media histories of many of the prospects and found things they did not like.

Trump used one of his passes to eliminate a woman who posted videos to her Facebook page on the day the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, showing New Yorkers celebrating in the streets near her apartment. He used another pass to challenge a woman whose husband had posted anti-Trump memes to his Facebook page, including one that showed a photograph of Trump alongside a photograph of Barack Obama. It read: “I don’t think this is what they meant, that orange is the new black.”

Trump would prefer to have “unlimited” passes, as he wrote on Truth Social: “I thought STRIKES were supposed to be ‘unlimited’ when we were picking our jury? I was then told we only had 10, not nearly enough when we were purposely given the 2nd Worst Venue in the Country. Don’t worry, we have the First Worst also, as the Witch Hunt continues! ELECTION INTERFERENCE!”

But there is not unlimited time to choose a jury. If Trump were allowed as many passes as he liked, the process could stretch into weeks or months — thus the need for limitations.

Jury selection continues for the last 11 jurors and alternates on Thursday. If everything goes according to Merchan’s plan, opening statements will get started on Monday.