OpinionU.S. News

Who is the New York judge whose order threatens Trump’s fortune?

Some 20 years ago, I had a direct legal encounter with Arthur Engoron in a freedom-of-religion case.

Symbol of law and justice in a courtroom. Credit: corgarashu/Shutterstock.
Symbol of law and justice in a courtroom. Credit: corgarashu/Shutterstock.
Nathan Lewin
Nathan Lewin
Nathan Lewin is a Washington, D.C., attorney with a Supreme Court practice who has taught at leading national law schools including Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and the University of Chicago.

After a fiery trial during which a New York trial judge prohibited former President Donald Trump from making public statements criticizing the judge’s law secretary, the judge granted the request of Attorney General Letitia James to enter a judgment of $454 million against Trump. Now that the amount Trump will have to post to enable him to appeal has been reduced, a New York appellate court will determine the validity of the judgment.

I followed the trial and the decision in the newspapers and public media. The judge’s name, Arthur Engoron, rang a faint bell, but not until now have I searched my memory and found reports of Engoron’s role in a publicized freedom-of-religion case in which I represented rabbis who were sued for issuing a rabbinical pronouncement that entitles a husband to remarry (heter meah rabbonim).

In 2000, Helen Sieger, a wealthy owner of nursing homes, sued the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (Agudas Horabonim) and several named rabbis. She claimed that she had been defamed and otherwise harmed by the issuance of a heter requested by the husband from whom she refused to accept a get when they divorced civilly. I represented some of the rabbis who were sued. I argued, in their defense, that a secular New York court could not constitutionally evaluate the conduct of rabbis implementing the religious rules of a heter.

The New York trial judge assigned to the Sieger case was Martin Schoenfeld—elevated some time later to be an appellate judge in the New York system. Arthur Engoron was a young lawyer who had been Schoenfeld’s law secretary since 1991. I did not know Engoron or how deeply he may have been involved in the judge’s rulings in Sieger’s case.

I appeared several times before Schoenfeld to present an oral argument. On each occasion, I was surprised by the judge’s resistance to my legal argument based on solid precedent. He seemed intent on bringing Sieger’s case to a public trial. He granted my motion to dismiss many of her claims, but he ordered that her defamation and emotional distress claims be tried before a jury.

I took advantage of New York’s procedure that allows such an order to be appealed before a trial is held. I also discovered that Schoenfeld’s law secretary—named Arthur Engoron—was dating Sue, the secretary of the lawyer who represented Sieger in this litigation.

That led me to file a motion requesting that Schoenfeld remove himself from the case because of his law secretary’s relationship with Sue. I alleged that Engoron may have transmitted information to his girlfriend’s boss and may have drafted Schoenfeld’s opinions favoring her boss’s client. On July 1, 2002, Schoenfeld recused himself, declaring that he had only recently learned of the relationship between Engoron and Sue.

In November 2003, my appeal to the New York appellate court succeeded. Five appellate judges ruled unanimously that Sieger’s case, in its entirety, should have been dismissed under the federal constitution and New York law. That same year, Engoron was named a New York civil court judge.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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