In 2013, the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation aimed for their second straight legal victory in blocking construction projects on what they considered to be the land of their ancestors. In this case, they wanted to halt the construction of 112 wind turbines outside the small town of Ocotillo in the Sonoran Desert, contending that the federal government had failed to protect Native American cultural resources, including sacred sites, when it allowed the facility to be built. In another case in 2010, the tribe had successfully won an injunction against an Imperial Valley solar project, on the grounds that the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consult with the tribe.
But Judge Gonzalo Curiel of the U.S. District Court for Southern California found that reasoning unconvincing in the 2013 case: The bureau’s decisions were not “arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion,” he wrote. Environmentalists also walked away disappointed that day, as Curiel dismissed a related suit claiming the wind-turbines project illegally endangered wildlife. The judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management had “conducted a thorough review of the potential impacts on birds, bats and golden eagles.”
Curiel is now the most famous and perhaps consequential district court judge in the country, thanks to Donald Trump’s furious denunciation of the judge’s presiding over two class-action lawsuits against “Trump University.” The candidate’s objection isn’t nuanced. He concluded simply to Jake Tapper, “He’s a Mexican,” and told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.” (Curiel is in fact an American citizen born in Indiana to Mexican-immigrant parents.)
Trump’s lawyers haven’t filed any motion asking for the case to be reassigned to a different judge, and that may reflect that they don’t have many arguments to back up the allegations of bias beyond the fact of Curiel’s heritage. The judge did work in the same U.S. attorney’s office in the late 1990s as one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, Jason Forge, but Forge denies knowing Curiel as anything more than a co-worker.
To the extent Trump has elaborated on his charge, he points to Curiel’s membership in La Raza Lawyers of San Diego beginning in 2007, also sometimes referred to as the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association. The group held a reception honoring Curiel on May 25. The group is distinct from the Latino advocacy organization the National Council of La Raza, but it links to the national group on its web page.
While some argue that the group’s very name expresses a radical racial-identity politics, the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association contends that translating “La Raza” as “the race’” is a mistake: “While it is true that one meaning of ‘raza’ in Spanish is indeed ‘race,’ in Spanish, as in English and any other language, words can and do have multiple meanings,” says an explanation posted on their website. “As noted in several online dictionaries, ‘La Raza’ means ‘the people’ or ‘the community.’”
When nominated for his seat on the U.S. District Court in 2011, Curiel listed La Raza Lawyers of San Diego among the ten bar associations and professional groups he belonged to and declared, in a legal affidavit, “To the best of my knowledge, none of the organizations discriminates or formerly discriminated on the basis of sex, race, religion or national origin.”
He told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The judicial process must be administered fairly without regard to a person’s background, economic situation, or personal situation. Cases must be decided based upon admissible evidence and the applicable law.”
‘Empathy does not play a role in the judicial process.’
“Empathy does not play a role in the judicial process,” Curiel wrote in response to questions from Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), contradicting the perspective of President Obama. “A judge protects the ‘little guy’ — and the ‘big guy’ — by applying the law fairly and evenhandedly to all of the parties whether they are ‘little’ or ‘big.’”
Curiel also differed from Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who defended justices’ citing precedents in foreign laws and asked, “Why shouldn’t we look to the wisdom of a judge from abroad with at least as much ease as we would read a law review article written by a professor?”
“Foreign law does not constitute binding precedent for a U.S. judge. In general, foreign law should not be considered in making decisions or rulings,” Curiel told the committee. “However, in certain limited circumstances, such as international commerce cases involving contracts governed by laws of other countries, it may become necessary to consider foreign law to properly decide a case.”
He added he was “committed to following precedent faithfully even if I disagree with such precedent.”
#share#Curiel’s record over ten years on the state and federal bench doesn’t give a lot of evidence to support claims of a pro-Latino bias or political partisanship. Curiel has not held any elected office or given services to any party or political campaign. In 2008 and 2010, he endorsed four candidates to be elected judges in the Superior Court of San Diego. Three won, one lost; candidates are not listed on the ballot by party.
A look at Curiel’s decisions indicates he fits no simple template. He shows no particular tendency to take the part of labor unions against business, for instance. In 2012, Curiel rejected a request for an injunction from a San Diego hotel-workers’ union to block an upcoming vote by hotel owners to fund an expansion of the San Diego Convention Center with a special tax on hotel rooms closer to the facility. The union argued that raising the tax would require a vote by the city; Curiel concluded the injunction was unnecessary because the San Diego city attorney had previously said that once the hoteliers voted, his office would seek an opinion from a judge to determine whether the taxing proposal was legal.
Curiel has served as the vice president of a San Diego charter school since 2008. He’s active in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office Legal Enrichment and Decision Making (“LEAD”) program, which introduces fifth-grade students to the legal world and runs mock trials.
On the bench, Curiel does show flashes of righteous fury against drug traffickers.
Curiel’s pre-judicial career is best known for his fight against Mexican drug cartels. He spent from 1989 to 2006 in prosecutorial roles in the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego and Los Angeles and was chief of the Narcotics Section from 1999 to 2002. He was given a Special Act Award for his efforts to dismantle the Tijuana Cartel at the Department of Justice during the Bush administration.
He defended the use of testimony that may been obtained through torture by Mexican law-enforcement officials. “The government is not here to deny there is a possibility of torture,” Curiel declared in a ruling for a U.S. district court in 1997. “There are serious allegations of torture. But the forum for those allegations to be aired is the Government of Mexico.”
In the late 1990s, the Tijuana drug cartel threatened to arrange Curiel’s assassination, and he spent a year living in hiding, protected by U.S. Marshals. In 2000, one of Curiel’s Mexican counterparts, prosecutor Jose Patino Moreno, had his head crushed by an industrial press at the hands of another cartel.
#related#On the bench, Curiel does show flashes of righteous fury against drug traffickers. One year ago, he sentenced a drug trafficker to 15 years in prison, after seeing grisly pictures of a murder victim that the trafficker texted to his own girlfriend. The defendant, Juan Castro-Navarro, was not charged with murder because the killing occurred in Tijuana and the victim was not a U.S. citizen.
Curiel granted the government’s request for a sentencing enhancement because of the grisly pictures found on Castro’s cell phone. At the sentencing hearing, Curiel told Castro that he had become a “monster” who trafficked in “poison.”
In 2013, the newsletter for the Federal Bar Association’s San Diego Chapter asked Curiel for his advice to attorneys. He said to bring only “real issues” before the court and to try to keep professional and cordial relations with opposing counsel. He noted that an attorney’s reputation in the community is everything.
“There will never be a case that is worth sacrificing your integrity or your good name over,” Curiel said.