While still a presidential hopeful in 2016, Donald Trump attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel on national television, saying the “Mexican” justice couldn’t impartially rule on lawsuits against Trump University because of Trump’s promise to build “a wall between here and Mexico.”′
“Look, he’s proud of his heritage, OK? I’m building a wall,” Trump told CNN anchor Jake Tapper in June 2016, referring to Curiel, an American who was born in Indiana.
In a twist of irony, the fate of that border wall may now be in the hands of the judge derided by Trump. As first reported by McClatchy, Curiel will preside over a case on Friday that may determine whether the federal government has the power to bypass environmental laws to build Trump’s wall.
Andrew Gordon, a former Department of Homeland Security attorney, called the case “very significant,” telling McClatchy that if Curiel rules against the administration, it could hamper Trump’s immediate border wall ambitions — even if a higher court chooses to rule differently at a later stage.
Should Curiel rule in favor of the administration, Trump could issue waivers to build barriers on unfenced parts of border, noted The Hill.
The case consolidates three lawsuits filed last year by the state of California, environmental groups and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). The suits challenge the waivers granted by Congress in 1996 and 2005 allowing the federal government to bypass certain federal and state laws, including environmental regulations, for border security reasons.
The suits claim the waivers are outdated and should not apply to Trump’s border wall plan. California said the construction of the wall could do “irreparable harm” to the state’s wildlife. Legal experts say the groups that have brought the lawsuits will bear a significant legal burden to prove their case.
Curiel made headlines in 2016, when Trump disparaged him as a “hater” and “Mexican” while the judge presided over fraud lawsuits against Trump University.
“I think the judge has been extremely hostile to me. I think it has to do with perhaps the fact that I’m very, very strong on the border,” Trump told Fox News in February 2016. “Now, he is Hispanic, I believe. He is a very hostile judge to me. I said it loud and clear.”
Curiel, whose parents are naturalized citizens from Mexico, did not respond to Trump’s comments, which were widely lambasted as racist. Trump University eventually agreed to pay $25 million to settle the fraud lawsuits. Curiel approved the settlement.
At least one former colleague of the judge said Curiel will not allow Trump’s earlier attacks on him to cloud his judgment on the upcoming case.
“I can tell you with certainty it will not impact him at all,” Gregory Vega, a San Diego, California, attorney, told McClatchy. “He will follow the rule of law.”