On September 21, 2022, Letitia James, the Attorney General of the State of New York, filed a complaint against former President Donald Trump in the New York County Supreme Court. The complaint alleges that Donald Trump submitted false statements to financial institutions, deliberately exaggerating his net worth by billions of dollars in an effort to persuade those institutions to grant loans to the Trump Organization under more advantageous conditions. The Hon. Arthur Engoron is set to preside over the trial on October 2, 2023.
Who is the Hon. Arthur Engoron?
A registered Democrat, Engoron earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University. He then completed a J.D. at New York University School of Law. After graduating from law school, he entered into private practice, working as an associate at Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell & Weyher. He remained with the firm for two years, eventually leaving to join Pryor, Cashman, Sherman & Flynn. Then, in 1991, Engoron became a principal law clerk to the Hon. Marin Schoenfeld of the New York County Supreme Court.
Engoron began his judicial career with his election to the Civil Court of the City of New York (New York County) in 2003. Ten years later, in 2013, he was selected to serve as an acting justice of the New York County Supreme Court. He became a full justice on the bench after his election to the seat in 2016. But is this all there is to know about him?
Judicial Analytics with Court Transcripts
Of course not. Lately, I’ve been reading through court transcripts to uncover valuable insights about a judge’s behavior, legal reasoning, and judicial temperament. While court transcripts alone may not provide a complete picture, they can reveal certain aspects of a judge’s style and approach to the law.
On March 21, 2023, Engoron held a hearing to decide on a motion to vacate the preliminary conference order set for the State of New York’s case against Trump. The order, which set out a detailed schedule of disclosure and other maneuverings, culminates in a trial to commence on October 2, 2023. By filing a motion to vacate, Trump’s legal team sought to adjourn the trial for six months.
Engoron opens the hearing with an anecdote:
Some twenty years ago, an elected New York City official was charged with the crime of filing a false instrument. A lawyer friend of mine said that’s an easy charge to prove, you filed it and it’s false. So it would seem in this case.
He then proceeds to summarize what he thinks are the key points of the case:
Plaintiff claims that the individual defendants filed or participated in filing false financial statements. Defendants claim that those exhibits are not their documents, that they did not submit them to third parties, that the documents are not false, that everyone was doing it, that those third parties could reach their own conclusions, that disclaimers insulated the statements and that those parties were not harmed. However, this court has already ruled that everyone was doing it, that those parties could reach their own conclusions, that disclaimers insulated the comments, and that those parties were not harmed are not legal defenses here.
Engoron concludes his opening by reiterating that the crux of this case is whether or not the statements submitted by defendants were, indeed, false. The defense, however, wants to change his mind, shifting the focus away from the truth or falsity of the financial statements and towards the role of those financial statements in obtaining financial benefits. After all, under common law, three elements are required to prove fraud: (1) a material false statement; (2) the intent to deceive through that false statement; and (3) actual (or potential) harm resulting from the victim’s reliance on that statement. Will it work?
According to Christopher Kise, the attorney for the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, the Attorney General’s legal theory inflates the facts. “[T]he Attorney General’s theory is that because of these inflated statements, for example, President Trump was able to qualify for a loan that he wouldn’t have otherwise qualified for.” He continues, explaining that the evidence available already suggests that “Trump would have qualified for the loans that he received if his net worth were ten percent of what was in the statements.”
The ensuing dialogue is worth recounting in full:
Who is taking the position that if the financial institutions would have lent anyway, doesn’t matter if the documents were true or false? That’s not the position I take or that the Appellate Division is going to take.
I’m not necessarily taking that position. What I’m saying is that it is highly relevant under the existing case law.
Something that has a capacity or tendency to deceive, which is some of the magic words in the case law under 63(12), has to actually have some capacity or tendency to state — meaning, it has to have some materiality to it, it has to be relied on in some sense.
You can’t submit false financial statements. Period. That’s what the Executive Law is all about and what this case is all about. So all this stuff about what the lenders thought or the valuation based on all those arcane values, I don’t think they’re relevant at all. You cannot lie — to use a phrase that I sometimes say is banned, so I’ll take that back — you cannot submit false financial statements, whatever. Period.
What Court Transcripts Reveal about Judicial Temperament and Practice
Transcripts of pre-trial motions are fascinating because they allow us to watch as legal theories and litigation strategies are worked out in everyday legal practice. If I was an attorney planning to litigate a fraud case before the Hon. Arthur Engoron, I would want to know how these theories and strategies actually unfold inside his courtroom.
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