A Donald Trump-owned golf club will face a federal judge in a high-profile case set for August in Palm Beach County, setting the stage for a presidential nominee to possibly take the witness stand, less than three months before the Republican nominee battles Democrat Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
Late last month, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra set August 15 as the first possible day for trial in a case involving aggrieved members of the former Ritz Carlton Golf Club in Jupiter. In a lawsuit, club members say Trump breached their contract and refused to return their money when Trump bought the club for $5 million in 2012.
It’s the second high-profile federal case involving Trump or one of his companies, though not as closely watched as the legal wrangling over Trump University. Still, this case, too, will once again shine a light on Trump’s business practices.
Attorneys representing roughly 60 members of the club, now known as Trump National Golf Club, Jupiter, have said at least $6 million is at stake.
The upcoming trial also presents another potential pitfall for the outspoken candidate, who recently publicly attacked a different federal judge.
For months, Trump has said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel was unfairly ruling against him in a case alleging fraud at now-defunct Trump University because the judge is of Mexican descent.
Critics, including members of his own Republican Party, have derided Trump’s comments as racist, prompting Trump on Wednesday to say his comments had been “misconstrued.”
Luckily for Trump, that trial is set for Nov. 28 in California, after the Nov. 8 election.
But the case involving Trump National is on track to be heard this summer, just as the campaigns heat up for the final push to the election.
Three former Ritz club members filed a federal lawsuit against Trump National in 2013, saying a Trump entity wrongly canceled their memberships when it bought the club and refused to return their deposits within 30 days, as required.
Membership deposits ranged from $41,000 to $117,000, according to court records.
Trump National Golf Club, in a gated community off Donald Ross Road near Alternate A1A, was catapulted into the national spotlight in March when a reporter claimed she was manhandled by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at a political news conference. Lewandowski, who denied the allegation, was charged with simple battery. State attorney Dave Aronberg declined to prosecute.
It’s likely Trump and possibly his son, Eric, who head’s Trump’s golf operations, will be called as a witness to testify in the breach of contract case.
“The timing is incredible,” said Boca Raton lawyer Howard DuBosar. “There will be national coverage.”
West Palm Beach lawyer Gregory Coleman had a more colorful description of the upcoming trial: “A circus.”
Trump lawyer Herman Russomano III said there’s not yet a witness list, and he wouldn’t comment on whether Trump could be a witness. A lawyer for the former Ritz club members didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Russomano said an Aug. 5 hearing will determine exactly what date the trial will be held.
Donald Trump sent a Dec. 17, 2013, letter to club members that is a key piece of evidence in the case. In that letter, Trump said Ritz members could “opt in” to his new club, in exchange for agreeing their memberships were nonrefundable.
If members weren’t interested in opting in, and they remained on a club resignation list, Trump said he didn’t want them anyway.
“You’re probably not going to be a very good club member…you’re out,” Trump wrote in the letter. “As the owner of the club, I do not want them to utilize the club nor do I want their dues.”
Marra has yet to rule on a request by Trump to throw out the lawsuit. So the case will go to trial if Marra doesn’t grant Trump’s entire request to toss the complaint, said Russomano, of Miami.
The setting of a trial date follows several Trump defeats in the case, including a failed attempt to stop the case from being certified as a class action lawsuit.
But could Trump try another tactic to derail the lawsuit?
For months, Trump has been on a crusade to discredit Curiel in the Trump U. case. A lawsuit accuses Trump of defrauding students of $35,000 each with promises of real estate education they either didn’t receive or found useless. Trump has denied the claims.
And he’s taken the unusual step of blasting Curiel, saying that because he’s “Mexican” (he’s not; he was born in Indiana to parents who emigrated from Mexico), Curiel had a conflict in hearing Trump’s case. Trump referenced his promise to “build a wall” between the U.S. and Mexico as a reason for Curiel’s alleged conflict.
Marra will not have to face the same Mexican-related scrutiny when the Trump Golf case goes to trial.
But Marra, an Italian-American, is a devout Catholic. And the Catholic Church’s leader, Pope Francis, has been the subject of Trump’s insults, too.
In February, Trump ripped the Pope as a “very political person” for a planned visit to the U.S. border close to Mexico.
Pope Francis responded by saying Trump “is not Christian” for his pledges to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Trump fired back, calling Francis’ comments “disgraceful.”
Even if Trump tries to attack Marra because of his Catholicism, he’s unlikely to rattle the well-respected jurist, local attorneys say.
“Judge Marra is one of the fairest, most knowledgeable judges on the federal court bench. He is not going to be swayed by any of this chaos. That’s not his style,” said Coleman, former president of the Florida Bar.
Russomano said the legal team and Trump have “no concern” about Marra’s Catholic background being a factor in his rulings or the trial.
Trump’s lawyer in the case before Curiel has said Trump will not seek to ask the judge to recuse himself from the case.
But by attacking the judge publicly, and exhorting his followings to do the same, Trump has set up a situation where the judge may consider excusing himself from the case, a move known as sua sponte, or “of his own accord,” local lawyers said.
“On the one hand, I was thinking a judge might want to consider whether they should sua sponte to eliminate any appearance of bias,” DuBosar said.
“On the other hand, it would set a horrible precedent,” DuBosar added. “It would be easy to get rid of a judge just by making a public statement about them.”
This sort of “judge shopping” would undermine the integrity of the judicial system, DuBosar added.
Indeed, West Palm Beach attorney Gerald Richman said judges of varying backgrounds and religions are able to rule on a range of issues. Examples include Supreme Court rulings on abortion, a procedure that violates Catholic Church teachings. Several Supreme Court justices are Catholic.
Despite public outcries over perceived biases, immunity from public opinion is the very reason that federal judges are given lifetime appointments, as opposed to state judges, who are elected.
“It protects them from public outcry and influence. It’s exactly how our constitution is set up,” Richman said.
While there are standards for seeking the recusal of a state court judge, getting a federal judge recused from a case is a virtual impossibility, Coleman said.
“Because they’re there for life, they don’t have to face the public. All they have to do is their job,” Coleman said.
In any event, Trump would be foolish to seek to dump Marra as a judge during the upcoming Trump golf club trial, Coleman said.
“He’s not a judge you want to recuse anyway because he calls balls and strikes. If the law supports his ruling, that’s his ruling,” Coleman said.