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Donald Trump and judges: a testy combination

Donald Trump is under fire for suggesting the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University is biased, but the court record suggests these tactics against judges are a carryover from the Republican presumptive nominee's business days.

John Locher/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Treasure Island hotel and casino in Las Vegas, June 18. Mr. Trump’s recent calls for a federal judge hearing a fraud case against Trump University to step down aren’t the first time he’s sought a judge’s recusal or his only aggressive legal tactic.

Donald Trump may be new to politics, but court records show the testy exchanges with the judicial system currently on display in a lawsuit against the now-defunct Trump University are not a first.

A review of cases from the Republican presumptive nominee's days in real estate suggest his tense attitude toward judges are characteristic, according to an Associated Press review of hundreds of lawsuits, potentially shaping his relationship with the nation's highest judicial body if he were elected president.

Mr. Trump has used his high-profile position to bash opponents in court, and his lawyers have pressured judges who ruled against him to step down during real estate cases in both 2009 and 2011, court records show.

"I cannot, and I will not, allow the appearance of judge shopping," New York state Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling said in refusing to recuse himself at the time.

Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld, who held the post of Broward County Circuit Judge in Florida in 2007 and heard a case involving one of Trump's companies, said he was "incredulous" that the company continued to wipe digital files during a billion-dollar lawsuit, but he said the attorney's tactics are not altogether uncommon in big-money casino cases.

"How could there not be a hold place? 'Be careful, we've just filed a major lawsuit in which we're seeking billions of dollars, but routinely continue to wipe out computers,' " Mr. Streitfield told Trump's attorneys at the time. "That doesn't work."

Reporters and judges are thrusting the history into the spotlight as the businessman contends for the nation's highest office.

"[The] Defendant became the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race, and has placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue,” wrote Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a US district judge in San Diego. Judge Curiel referred to a previous case to state that in deciding public disclosure courts must weigh "whether a party benefitting from the order of confidentiality is a public entity or official; and ... whether the case involves issues important to the public," reported The Washington Post.

In a presidential election, these tactics are not expected, and they are working their way into the spotlight, as The Christian Science Monitor's Ben Rosen reported last month:

The judge’s order alludes to the importance of the public knowing everything about their representatives. While Trump has been criticized for dodging public scrutiny because he has not held office before, past presidential candidates have been on the losing end of this debate, as their personal lives (including their infidelities) have become public record.

In early June, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that there was "an absolute conflict" in Curiel's presiding over the case because he is "of Mexican heritage." "I'm building a wall. It's an inherent conflict of interest," he told The Journal. Curiel was born in Indiana. 

Criticism for these practices is building, even among Republican leadership. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin called Trump's warning about judicial bias relative to American-born Curiel's Mexican heritage the "textbook definition of a racist comment," and other GOP leaders have similarly condemned the remark.

Days after the criticism of Curiel, Trump issued a statement saying "it is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage." 

"I do not feel that one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial," he added, "but, based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial."

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