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Professor Gregory Germain writes: Gagging Trump: Is Judge Merchan’s Gag Order and Award of Sanctions Constitutional?

In this legal review, Professor Gregory Germain examines the balance between a defendant’s Constitutional First Amendment rights and the state’s right of the state to protect the judicial process as it relates to Judge Merchan’s gag order on Donald Trump.

Media wishing to interview Professor Germain on this or related topics should email Rob Conrad, director of communications and media relations.

I have previously written about the complex, or indeed convoluted, legal requirements that District Attorney Alvin Bragg must prove in order to properly convict Donald Trump of violating New York Penal Law § 175.10, which makes it a felony to falsify business records for the purpose of “defraud[ing]” someone, and also to cover up a separate crime.  Germain, The Manhattan District Attorney’s Convoluted Legal Case Against Donald Trump Gets More Convoluted.

But there is separate mini-case going on within that criminal case that raises fundamental constitutional questions – what is the power of the court to gag a defendant from making out-of-court statements that criticize the court process or the other participants? 

Gag orders bring into conflict two fundamental rights:  the right of free speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the right of the state to protect the judicial process.  The underlying question is whether Judge Merchan’s gag order properly balances these conflicting interests to withstand constitutional scrutiny. 

Judge Merchan’s Gag Order

Judge Merchan’s order prohibits Trump from engaging in three kinds of speech:  (1) “public statements about witnesses “concerning their potential participation” in the case, (2) public statements about court personnel, lawyers and other participants, and their family members, if “made with intent to materially interfere with, counsel’s or staff’s work in this criminal case, or with knowledge that such interference is likely to result,” and (3) any statements about jurors. 

The provisions regarding witnesses and court personnel are quite vague – what does it mean to criticize witnesses “concerning their participation?”  Trump’s disparaging public statements concerned the witnesses’ character, rather than their participation in the case.  Similarly, when are statements about court personnel designed to “interfere” with their work? 

With respect to jurors, Judge Merchan’s original gag order only protected “juror anonymity.”  His expanded order prohibited Trump from saying anything at all about jurors.  Judge Merchan stated that the broad order was “narrowly tailored” “to prevent extrajudicial speech targeting jurors and exposing them to an atmosphere of intimidation.”  But Judge Merchan has held Trump in contempt for making general comments about the political independence of the Manhattan jury pool, rather than for attacking individual jurors. 

Judge Merchan justified the other speech restrictions to prevent Trump from continuing to make statements that:

“were threatening, inflammatory, denigrating, and the targets of his statements ranged from local and federal officials, court and court staff, prosecutors and staff assigned to the cases, and private individuals including grand jurors performing their civic duty. The consequences of those statements included not only fear on the part of the individual targeted, but also the assignment of increased security resources to investigate threats and protect the individuals and family members thereof.  Such inflammatory extrajudicial statements undoubtedly risk impeding the orderly administration of this Court.” 

So Judge Merchan’s order is based on two different concerns:  (1) a concern for the safety of the participants, and (2) a desire to prevent criticism and denigration of the court process.  As discussed below, the former concern is directed to the potential responses of Trump’s supporters to his words rather than to Trump’s words themselves, and the latter concern directly impinges on Trump’s constitutional right of free speech.

Findings of Contempt and the Threat of Jail

Judge Merchan has held Trump in contempt ten times, and has fined him the maximum of $10,000, for criticizing the jury pool in Manhattan and the jury selection process, for making disparaging comments about witnesses Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen, who are both public figures actively engaged in making public comments about him, and for criticizing the judge and prosecutors as politically biased.  In his 10th contempt order, Judge Merchan told Trump “”The defendant is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment.” 

Are Gag Orders Constitutional?

Constitutional protections are subject to various degrees of scrutiny depending on the issues involved.  For example, governmental regulation of economic matters is reviewed under a very deferential standard –the government need only show a “legitimate governmental interest” to regulate economic matters. 

But challenges to fundamental constitutional rights like free speech are subject to the highest standard of strict scrutiny:  the government must show that the speech regulation is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest.  This comes from the famous “footnote 4” in United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938), and has been emphasized in numerous decisions of the Court after that. 

Is Judge Merchan’s gag order narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest? Gag orders are a prior restraint on free speech, since they prohibit future conduct rather than punishing past conduct.  Prior restraints on free speech are subject to the strictest scrutiny.  And prior restraints on the free speech of political candidates would presumably be subject to extra-strict strictest scrutiny. 

Judge Merchan cited three Supreme Court cases to justify the Trump gag order, without discussing the holdings. 

First, in Landmark Communications, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 US. 829, 842-843 (1978), the Court overturned the criminal conviction of a newspaper publisher who had identified the judge who was being investigated in a judicial conduct proceeding, which proceeding, under Virginia law, was supposed to be secret and confidential.  The state attempted to justify the secret and confidential nature of judicial conduct proceedings by identifying various legitimate state interests in maintaining confidentiality:  confidentiality encourages the filing of complaints and investigations of possible wrongdoing, protects the judge being investigated against the damage from publicity of unwarranted complaints, and it maintains confidence in the judiciary.  The court overturned the publisher’s conviction finding the justifications insufficient to abridge the publisher’s free speech rights.  “The publication Virginia seeks to punish under its statute lies near the core of the First Amendment, and the Commonwealth’s interests advanced by the imposition of criminal sanctions are insufficient to justify the actual and potential encroachments on freedom of speech and of the press which follow therefrom.”  Id. at 838.

But the Court in Landmark went on to point out that the state’s justifications should not even be given weight in the constitutional balance. 

“Moreover, neither the Commonwealth’s interest in protecting the reputation of its judges, nor its interest in maintaining the institutional integrity of its courts is sufficient to justify the subsequent punishment of speech at issue here, even on the assumption that criminal sanctions do in fact enhance the guarantee of confidentiality. Admittedly, the Commonwealth has an interest in protecting the good repute of its judges, like that of all other public officials. Our prior cases have firmly established, however, that injury to official reputation is an insufficient reason “for repressing speech that would otherwise be free.” The remaining interest sought to be protected, the institutional reputation of the courts, is entitled to no greater weight in the constitutional scales.

Id. at 841-42 (citations omitted).  Thus, Landmark says that Judge Merchan’s concern for protecting the integrity of the judicial process or the reputations of the participants is not given weight against Trump’s constitutional right to speak. 

The Landmark court went even further by suggesting that the standard for assessing threats borders on the “clear and present danger” test:

In a series of cases raising the question of whether the contempt power could be used to punish out-of-court comments concerning pending cases or grand jury investigations, this Court has consistently rejected the argument that such commentary constituted a clear and present danger to the administration of justice. What emerges from these cases is the “working principle that the substantive evil must be extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high before utterances can be punished,” and that a “solidity of evidence,” is necessary to make the requisite showing of imminence. “The danger must not be remote or even probable; it must immediately imperil.”

Id. at 844-45 (citations omitted). 

One has to wonder whether Judge Merchan read the Supreme Court’s decision in Landmark before citing it as a basis for his gag order, as his justifications for the gag order would not even be given weight in balancing Trump’s free speech rights.  And Landmark does not deal at all with the even stronger concerns about prior restraints as opposed to post-speech punishments. 

The second case cited by Judge Merchan in support of the gag order is Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 US 333 (1966), a famous case in which Sam Sheppard, a prominent neurosurgeon, was convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death.  The issue in Sheppard was whether the criminal defendant received a fair trial when the trial court made no effort to protect him from negative publicity reaching the jury.  In Sheppard, there were many things the court could have done to assure a fair trial without impeding freedom of speech and the press:  better jury sequestration, change of venue, separating the participants from the press, controlling the dissemination of information.  The Court said that the judge, who was up for re-election, created a “carnival atmosphere” in the courtroom that denied Sheppard his constitutional right to a fair trial.  The focus of Sheppard was to protect the defendant’s constitutional fair trial right; there is nothing in Sheppard that supports a gag order preventing the defendant from criticizing the court or other participants. 

Finally, Judge Merchan cited Nebraska Press Assn v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976), which involved a gag order preventing the press from publishing certain incriminating information about the defendant in order to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.  The case thus involved a direct conflict between two constitutional rights:  the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial, and the free speech rights of the press under the first amendment.  Once again, the Court held that the gag order was invalid because the trial court failed to consider other means to assure that the defendant received a fair trial, noting the extremely high constitutional standard for prior restraints on speech. 

So none of the cases cited by Judge Merchan support his gag order.  Sheppard and Stuart involved the defendant’s right to a fair trial, not restraints on a defendant’s speech, and neither case upheld or suggested the use of a gag order. Landmark specifically rejected the notion that a general concern with the public’s respect for the judicial process even counts in the balance against a constitutional right to free speech. The string citation of these important Supreme Court cases does not show the careful analysis of the law that one would expect when issuing an order preventing a presidential candidate during an election from exercising his First Amendment speech rights.

The DC Circuit’s Gag Order Against Trump

Judge Merchan’s gag order was modeled after the decision of the federal Court of Appeals in United States v. Trump, 88 F.4th 990 (D.C. Cir. 2023), although the gag order in that case applied to all of the trial participants, not just Trump.  The D.C. Circuit upheld but modified the trial court’s gag order in the federal election interference case brought by prosecutor Jack Smith.  That case is currently on appeal to the United States Supreme Court concerning the scope of presidential immunity.  

Unlike Judge Merchan’s gag order, the D.C. Circuit’s 39 page opinion contains significant legal analysis and support.  The opinion begins by recognizing Trump’s strong constitutional free speech rights, noting that “the First Amendment `has its fullest and most urgent application’ to speech uttered during a campaign for political office” and that “the First Amendment generally shields ‘insulting, and even outrageous, speech.’” 

The DC Circuit also recognized that “Certain ‘historic and traditional categories’ of speech receive no First Amendment protection, such as defamation, incitement, ‘[t]rue threats of violence,’ and obscenity.” 

But then the DC Circuit deviates from Supreme Court doctrine to state the broad principle upon which its opinion rests – that the court “system” (separate from the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial) has a compelling interest in protecting its “integrity” that should be weighed against the defendant’s constitutional right of free speech.  And that the courts have broader latitude in restraining the participants in the case than in restraining non-participants. 

The DC Circuit put a great deal of emphasis on the Supreme Court’s decision Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030, 111 S.Ct. 2720, 115 L.Ed.2d 888 (1991), where the Court overturned the criminal conviction of a lawyer for the defendant, who had made out-of-court statements about the police being corrupt, and was later convicted for violating a Nevada state bar statute that prohibited an attorney from making “an extrajudicial statement . . . that . . . will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding.” 

After reading the DC Circuit’s opinion, you would think that the Court affirmed Gentile’s conviction.  In fact, the Court overturned Gentile’s conviction, holding that Gentile’s statement as a matter of law did not have a substantial likelihood of prejudicing the proceeding.  Nevertheless, the DC Circuit took comfort in the Court’s statement that “the First Amendment allows a court to prohibit the speech of a trial participant when the speech poses a ‘substantial likelihood of material prejudice’ to an adjudicative proceeding.” 

The DC Circuit took that thin reed of dicta to conclude that the courts can limit participant “outside speech and influences [so that they] do not derail or corrupt the criminal trial process. On this record, the constitutional path for the presiding judge to protect both free speech and the fair and orderly administration of justice was not to limit what outsiders can say about the trial or trial participants, but to appropriately delimit what trial participants, including the accused, can say publicly to other participants, witnesses, or outsiders.” 

The Court then suggested that Trump’s public comments about witnesses like Mark Meadows may have been designed to influence their testimony, and since the criminal law would prevent Trump from directly influencing a witness’s testimony, a gag order could prevent him from indirectly through the media attempting to influence a witness’s testimony.  Judge Merchan expressed no similar concern about Trump indirectly attempting to influence witness testimony by his public statements.

Similarly, the DC Circuit stated that “threats” against court personnel could “generate alarm and dread” or “trigger extraordinary safety precautions” that would “hinder the trial process and slow the administration of justice.” That of course might be true of true “threats,” but is it also true of public criticism?  This is a very vague concern that ignores the law of incitement, discussed below. 

To balance the defendant’s free speech rights against protecting the judicial process, the DC Circuit added language preventing Trump from making statements about witnesses only if the statements “concern[ed] their participation” in the trial, and added language restricting statements about court personnel if he could reasonably foresee that it would interfere with their job. 

Judge Merchan copied the DC Circuit’s language, limiting the gag order to statements about witnesses “concerning their participation,” and added language about “intending to interfere” for court personnel and opposing lawyers. 

But the application of the DC Circuit’s language is opaque.  Does the following tweet by Trump concern Michael Cohen’s “participation in the trial”:  “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”  Or does calling Michael Cohen a “liar” before he testified “concern his participation,” or does it concern his character?  Does saying Judge Merchan is “politically compromised” prevent him from doing his job?  I do not think the standard articulated by the DC Circuit is not clear enough to be workable, and the law requires injunctions to be clear so that the enjoined parties understand what they can and cannot do. 

The First Department Appellate Division Order

Trump brought a proceeding under Article 78 of the New York Civil Law and Practice Rules (CPLR) seeking to overturn Judge Merchan’s gag order.  The Appellate Division for the First Department held that Article 78 relief is discretionary, and, noting that a similar gag order was approved by the DC Circuit, denied his request.  The Appellate Division said that the participants have a right to be free from “threats, intimidation, harassment and harm.” The Court did not seem concerned about abridging Trump’s constitutional right to speak. 

Trump’s Prospects for Overturning the Gag Orders.

So far Trump has lost every attempt to challenge the gag orders.  While the courts have paid lip service to his free speech rights, the courts have put their concerns for the judicial process ahead of his constitutional speech rights. 

There is no doubt that courts have a fundamental responsibility to protect the safety of court personnel, witnesses, jurors, and other participants.  And there are legitimate concerns in this case for the safety of the participants.  Trump’s supporters have doxed and threatened his opponents.  The DC Circuit said:

The district court made a factual finding that, “when Defendant has publicly attacked individuals, including on matters related to this case, those individuals are consequently threatened and harassed.” Mr. Trump has not shown that factual finding to be clearly erroneous, and we hold that the record amply supports it.

When Trump publicly attacks his opponents with words, his supporters have responded with threats and harassment.  And there is a legitimate concern that his supporters might resort to violence, as we saw on January 6, 2021, when, following a Trump call to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election, Trump’s supporters invaded the US Capitol. 

But can Trump’s constitutional right to free speech be abridged because of the way that his supporters might react to his words?  The Supreme Court has addressed this question in the incitement cases. 

The starting point is Brandenberg v. Ohio, 395 US 444 (1969), where a Ku Klux Klan member invited the media to his farm to film a Klan meeting where they burned a cross and made racist and violent statements against blacks and jews.  Brandenberg was convicted under an Ohio criminal statute for advocating violence and criminal conduct. 

But the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that Brandenberg’s belief in and advocacy of violence was protected speech under the First Amendment.  The Brandenberg rule prevents the state from punishing speech even advocating violence unless that speech incites or produces “imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”  The speaker must not only advocate violence, but must encourage that it be committed promptly, and provide a road map for its commission. 

The same rule was applied in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886 (1982), where the NAACP organized a boycott of white businesses as a civil rights protest.  Charles Evers, the Field Secretary of the NAACP, made several speeches suggesting that black people who violated the boycott would “have their necks broken by their own people,” and “If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we’re gonna break your damn neck.”  The owners of the boycotted stores sued the NAACP for lost profits from the boycott due to Evers’ threats of violence.  The Court, citing Brandenberg, held that Evans’ speech was protected by the First Amendment because it did not incite imminent lawless action.

Trump’s statements about the trial have not directly and explicitly called for violence, and certainly would not meet the incitement test of imminent lawless action.  It is difficult to see how Trump’s speech could be curtailed because of the concern that his supporters might respond with harassment or even violence when he did not explicitly incite an imminent lawless response.  Risks of violence exist in every legal case, and are especially concerning in in high profile cases involving celebrities.  The courts surely could prohibit participants from inciting imminent lawless action or violence, but they cannot prohibit protected speech out of concern for the potential response of third parties.  Instead, the court must rely on law enforcement to protect the safety of the participants.  The concern for the response of supporters is not a legitimate basis for infringing on Trump’s constitutionally protected speech rights.

Furthermore, the court has repeatedly recognized in the cited cases that the integrity of the judicial process is fair game for public criticism.  Judge Merchan cannot use his authority to prevent Trump from criticizing his decisions or his independence.

The Future of the Gag Order

In my opinion, the gag orders are not narrowly tailored to protect a compelling governmental interest, because there are many things the court could do to protect jurors and witnesses from being influenced by Trump’s public statements if that’s the real concern.  Criticism of the judge and the judicial process is plainly protected speech.  The gag orders also contain both vague and overbroad language under which he could be, and has been, punished even though his statements were protected speech.

Trump’s problem is that the lower courts are not likely to take his constitutional claims seriously, and it is a long road to get his constitutional claims from the state courts to the United States Supreme Court.  I strongly doubt that the Supreme Court would consider intervening in a state court proceeding involving merely monetary sanctions in the thousands of dollars.  Those sanctions can be challenged in due course on appeal, and would likely not be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

However, the calculus changes materially if Judge Merchan decides to put Trump in jail for violating the gag order.  Jailing a presidential candidate during an election for engaging in speech would cause a constitutional crisis.  If the state appellate courts did not promptly intervene, I believe the Supreme Court would intervene by certiorari to promptly hear his constitutional challenge to the gag order.

Trump and Judge Merchan have been engaged in a game of chicken over the possibility of a prison sentence.  The repeated $1,000 sanctions awards have not stopped Trump from flouting the gag order by criticizing the court, the process and the witnesses.  In response to Judge Merchan’s jail threat, a defiant Trump has said “I’d be proud to go to jail for the Constitution.”  They are on a collision course for control, and, if Judge Merchan takes the bait, their tiff may ultimately lead to a clear Supreme Court ruling on the future scope of gag orders, which is probably long overdue.

I do not believe Judge Merchan’s gag order would withstand constitutional scrutiny before the Supreme Court, which has been very protective of First Amendment speech rights. The Court might allow a very clear and very limited gag order to prevent speech that would not be protected by the First Amendment, such as genuine incitement, but Judge Merchan’s broad, one-sided order preventing Trump from criticizing the court and witnesses, while not prohibiting the witnesses from criticizing him, is not consistent with the Court’s free speech precedent.

Syracuse University College of Law Introduces Two Groundbreaking Intercollegiate Trial Advocacy Competitions: The National Military Trial Competition and the Syracuse Deposition Competition

Syracuse University College of Law will host two first-of-its-kind intercollegiate trial advocacy competitions in the 2024-2025 academic year. The new competitions are the National Military Trial Competition and the Syracuse Deposition Competition, bringing the total of hosted Syracuse Law competitions to five.

The National Military Trial Competition (NMTC) introduces law students with an interest in military justice and the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) to the trial process in military courts. The competition will take place in person in Syracuse, NY on March 21st -23rd, 2025.

NMTC will feature between eight to 12 teams competing against each other in a case involving a military court-martial. The case will be tried using the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Rules for Courts-Martial (RCM) applicable to military courts.

Because trying cases in a military court may be unfamiliar to students and coaches, Syracuse Law will facilitate a virtual non-mandatory introductory training for trying cases in military courts, immediately before the release of the fact pattern. While teams can choose their coach, Syracuse Law will connect any team who are interested in working with current or former JAG officers with JAG officers who are willing to coach and assist. 

The application is now open and can be found on the NMTC webpage.

The Syracuse Deposition Competition (SDC) fills a training void in legal academia by providing students with a unique platform to expand their arsenal of practical skills. Participants will gain invaluable insight through simulated real-world experience to enhance critical skills for conducting and defending depositions. The competition will take place virtually on November 1st – 3rd, 2024.

Today, depositions have become the standard and trials the exception. A forum to develop deposition skills is more necessary now than ever. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the percentage of federal civil cases that went to trial fell from 20% to 12%. By 1992, this number dropped to 3.5%.

The competition will feature a minimum of eight teams who will compete by taking and defending depositions. Because of the unique nature of a new deposition competition, Syracuse Law will host a non-mandatory virtual training session to discuss the basics of deposition practice immediately before the release of the fact pattern.

There will be no registration fee. The application is now open and can be found on the SDC webpage.

“The new competitions close a gap in legal advocacy education as these are the first to address the unique challenges of military law and trials and the burgeoning reliance on depositions rather than trials to settle disputes,” says Professor Todd Berger, Director of Advocacy Programs at Syracuse Law.

Syracuse Law also hosts the National Trial League, the Syracuse National Trial Competition, and the Transatlantic Negotiations Competition (co-hosted with Queen’s University Belfast.) Information on all Syracuse Law-hosted trial advocacy competitions can be found here.

“Syracuse University College of Law has a track record of creating innovative advocacy curriculum and programs that further the practical educational needs of today’s law students,” says Dean Craig Boise. “I am proud that our institution is adding these unique competitions that will help train new lawyers with the skills needed in the legal profession.”

In addition to the five hosted intercollegiate competitions, the Syracuse Law offers the only joint J.D./LL.M. in Advocacy and Litigation degree that students can complete in three years and at no further cost than the J.D. Its Travis H.D. Lewin Advocacy Honor Society conducts five intracollegiate competitions and participates in numerous intercollegiate competitions across the country.

Professor Kevin Noble Maillard Writes on the Intersection of Indigenous Rice Crops and Climate Change

Professor Kevin Noble Maillard has contributed “How Wild Rice Forecasts Climate Change” in The New York Times. Maillard examines how manoomin, a crop vital to the Indigenous peoples of the Upper Midwest, has been threatened in recent years due to climate change and how it is being restored.

Maillard notes, Climate change and human impact have significantly depleted the natural abundance of manoomin, the “good berry” as wild rice is known in Anishinaabemowin, an Indigenous language also known as Ojibwe, and protecting it is synonymous with preserving cultural identity.

He continues, Threats to wild manoomin have spurred restoration movements in Indigenous nations, and legal and educational institutions have stepped in to help. The White Earth Nation has sought to enforce the “rights of manoomin” under several historic treaties, and a number of Indigenous bands have partnered with universities for research and data collection. As Karen Diver, the senior adviser to the president of the University of Minnesota for Native American affairs, explained, “researchers are impacted and informed not just by science, but by understanding the cultural values of the tribe.”

The full article may be behind a paywall.

Syracuse Law Alum Dreamed of NYC But Returned to California to be a Pioneer in Entertainment Law

Leslie Park stands in front of the Hallmark Media sign in her L.A. office.

When Leslie Park L’95 was a young girl growing up in a Korean-American immigrant family in Los Angeles, she remembers watching a movie where a female lawyer with a briefcase was walking down the courthouse steps in New York City. It was then that she decided “that’s going to be me one day.”

That moment planted a seed in her that continued to grow. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California Irvine, she decided to pursue law school. Park only applied to law schools in the Midwest or on the East Coast, as she kept dreaming of walking down those courthouse steps. One was the Syracuse University College of Law, which was a lot closer to New York City than California.

“I enjoy being a full-fledged entertainment lawyer. I know how a movie is made, the legal and real-life issues, intellectual property matters, how to handle talent and labor disputes, as well as how to comply with ever-changing privacy laws.”

Leslie Park L’95

Park credits her experience at Syracuse Law for instilling a sense of independence in her that has continued throughout her legal career. It was her first time away from home, and it took some adjustment. Most of the students were from the East Coast with only a few from California. “And, it was so cold!” she says. “The heaviest coat I brought with me was a windbreaker. But, I made it through the obstacles, and I’m grateful that I succeeded in becoming a lawyer.”

After graduating, she did make it to New York City after all, working as an attorney for Sidley Austin LLP and Moses & Singer LLP, as well as corporate counsel for Atari.

But, in 2003, she and her husband decided it was time to move back to Los Angeles to be near family. Park took a job with Hallmark Media (operator of Hallmark Channels and owned by Hallmark Cards, Inc.), as an in-house counsel in charge of corporate and securities filings. Even after Hallmark Cards took the company private in 2016, Park stayed on and assumed an expanded role since she had learned so much about the company and entertainment law in the 13 years. Today, she is the senior vice president of legal and business affairs and assistant general counsel at Hallmark Media.

Leslie Park at her desk at Hallmark Media

“I enjoy being a full-fledged entertainment lawyer,” she says. “I know how a movie is made, the legal and real-life issues, intellectual property matters, how to handle talent and labor disputes, as well as how to comply with ever-changing privacy laws. Hallmark Media produces over 100 movies a year on a very tight schedule, and if something falls off the radar on my watch that impacts the business.”

Other responsibilities include negotiating different kinds of commercial agreements to support all aspects of Hallmark Media, including content acquisition, strategic alliance, software licenses, data processing agreements, IP licensing, and various types of vendor, consulting and service agreements, as well as advising management on legal issues related to entertainment and media law. She also deals with privacy and data security, advising on marketing initiatives, global procurement, and research and analysis of FCC and FTC rules.

“Entertainment law is relatively new when you compare it to something like real estate law or estate planning. There is no set checklist on what to do, as the industry is constantly evolving…I like to look at my role as being a pioneer in figuring out this new way that people consume entertainment and the rules of not only entertainment law but the marketplace.”

Leslie Park L’95

The perks of the job are glamorous, too, as she has walked Hollywood’s red carpet, meeting celebrities like Florence Henderson, Jack Wagner and Rick Schroder, who have frequently appeared in Hallmark movies.

Entertainment law has certainly seen changes since she began working for Hallmark Media, particularly in the way the company produces and secures the amount of content needed to keep viewers watching its channels and streaming service 24 hours a day.

Leslie Park works in a conference room with her colleagues

“Early on it was just TV, VCRs or DVDs, but today content comes from all over the place. It used to be about working with just a handful of studios, but now there are so many different players in the space, from streaming services like Hulu and Netflix to independent producers and more,” says Park. “Entertainment law is relatively new when you compare it to something like real estate law or estate planning. There is no set checklist on what to do, as the industry is constantly evolving. Now, the same content is being sliced and diced into so many slivers so that providers can sell it both domestically and internationally, and that comes with a host of legalities. I like to look at my role as being a pioneer in figuring out this new way that people consume entertainment and the rules of not only entertainment law but the marketplace.”

“Watching that movie as a little girl, I dreamed of being a strong female lawyer,” she says. “I never dreamed then that I’d accomplish that by working in the entertainment business. I am thankful for the solid foundation Syracuse Law gave me that led to what I’ve accomplished in my career.”

Yohannes Takele Zewale LL.M.’19, S.J.D.’24 Successfully Defends Dissertation for Doctor of Juridical Science Degree

Yohannes Takele Zewale, LL.M.’19, S.J.D.’24, successfully defended his dissertation for the Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) degree. Zewale passed the oral defense of his dissertation with no revisions, becoming the first student to receive his S.J.D. from the College of Law.

In his dissertation, titled “Representation and Persons with Disabilities in Legislatures: A Proposed Model of Approval Representation,” Zewale discusses the lack of descriptive representation of disabled people in legislatures, as well as the limited research on the topic. To address this shortcoming, Zewale proposes a new model of “Approval Representation”, which seeks to increase descriptive representation based solely on voter preferences. His model is an alternative to the model of Descriptive Representation, which has been used in many countries to promote the representation of women and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Only five countries’ laws include quotas requiring the descriptive representation of disabled people in their legislatures, and all these countries are in the African region.

“Not only is Yohannes’ dissertation significant for its comprehensiveness (at 270 pages), its originality (there is only one other article on the topic), and its use of qualitative research methods to support its claims (following receipt of Institutional Review Board approval, he conducted interviews with 12 disabled people who serve in legislatures), but this dissertation is also significant because it shines a light on countries that are too often ignored by a research field largely dominated by Western scholars. The fact that the first five countries that have instituted policies to ensure representation of disabled people in their legislatures are all within the African region is a topic worthy of research in itself,” says Professor Arlene Kanter, Faculty Director of International Programs and dissertation advisor to Zewale.

Zewale has published one of the chapters from his dissertation in the Harvard Online International Law Journal and a separate chapter in the African Disability Rights Yearbook.

Zewale earned his LL.B. and his first LL.M. from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, in 2015 and 2018, respectively. He received his LL.M., as an Open Society Fellow, with a concentration on international and comparative disability law, from the College of Law in 2019. He has held positions at the Addis Ababa University School of Law, the Ethiopian Center for Disabilities and Development (ECDD), and different organizations. He is currently working for various non-governmental organizations at both national and international levels.

College of Law Students Attend the annual American Society of International Law Meeting

2Ls Tamara Laguna and Charles Sirotek joined Bond, Schoeneck and King Distinguished Professor Cora True-Frost G’01, L’01 at the 2024 American Society of International Law (ASIL) Annual Meeting. The theme of the 118th Annual Meeting was “International Law in an Independent World.”

The meeting drew global leaders in legal, human rights, trade, medical, finance, security, and other critical issues affecting international law. Through panels, speeches, and networking events the students were able to make new connections that will further their legal studies and careers.

“It was an amazing melting pot of ideas and people. There were lawyers from all over the world, but there were also experts who were not lawyers, and they were speakers as well. This diversity made it easier to understand very complex ideas and issues in a short amount of time,” says Laguna. “Overall, this was an amazing experience, and I am grateful that the College of Law helped provide for me to attend. I would not have been able to attend otherwise.”

True-Forst is the faculty advisor for the College’s International Law Society.

Tamara Laguna, Charles Sirotek, and Professor Cora True-Frost

Professor Jenny Breen’s Article “Labor, Law Enforcement, and ‘Normal Times’” Cited in a Concurring Eleventh Circuit Opinion, Edwards v. United States Attorney General

Professor Jenny Breen’s article “Labor, Law Enforcement, and ‘Normal Times’: The Origins of Immigration’s Home within the Department of Justice and the Evolution of Attorney General Control over Immigration Adjudications”, 42 Hawai’i L. Rev. 1, 58 (2019) was recently cited in a concurring opinion in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The case, Edwards v. United States Attorney General, considered whether an immigrant was entitled to relief from removal based on a modification to his state court criminal conviction. In reaching its decision that the immigrant was not entitled to relief from removal, the Eleventh Circuit had to consider the impact of an opinion by then-Attorney General William Barr that overturned a long string of precedent on the relationship between state court criminal convictions and removal orders.

Though he agreed with the panel that the new rule applied to the immigrant petitioner in this case, concurring Judge Adalberto Jordan expressed concern about courts mechanically giving retroactive effect to Attorney General opinions like the one at issue in this case. Part of Judge Jordan’s concern was grounded in the unpredictable nature of these opinions and particularly how those opinions have evolved in recent decades.     

Professor Breen’s article examines the highly discretionary and unchecked power of the United States Attorney General to review decisions in individual immigration adjudications. Her empirical survey of decades of these decisions revealed that the Attorneys General of the administration of President George W. Bush wrought a profound transformation in the use of this formerly rarely used power, one that slowed briefly during the administration of President Obama, and then accelerated again under President Donald J. Trump.

In his concurring opinion, Judge Jordan cited Professor Breen’s research as demonstrating the ways in which the Attorney General has increasingly used the particular procedural mechanism of Attorney General self-referral to “reshape immigration procedure and settled areas of immigration law” in recent decades. Though declining to “voice any opinion on whether these vacillating policy decisions are substantively good or bad (individually or collectively) for the body politic in general or the immigration system in particular,” Judge Jordan urged his colleagues to convene en banc to reconsider Eleventh Circuit precedent on this important issue.  Judge Jordan observed that “in light of these mercurial changes, the notion of automatic retroactivity (á la Yu) for Attorney General rulings (and similar administrative decisions of general applicability) seems ill-advised.”

Professor Breen’s article also considered the historical development of immigration enforcement, charting its politically controversial move out of the Department of Labor and into the Department of Justice during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.

The case is Edwards v. United States Attorney General, 97 F.4th 725 (11th Cir. 2024) (Jordan, J., concurring). 

College of Law Student Attains Highest Score on the Arizona Uniform Bar Examination

In the February 2024 administration of the Arizona Uniform Bar Examination, Jessica Marie Lanum L’23 had the highest score among the 238 applicants.

Lanum, a paralegal at Shore Dombrowski Law Firm, P.C. in Tucson, AZ, completed her law degree in the College’s JDinteractive online program while working full-time. At the College of Law, she graduated summa cum laude and was admitted to the Justinian Honor Society for students with the highest grade averages. Lanum was an Academic Success Fellow who mentored first-year students and received a Scribes Award for legal writing. She was the Research Assistant to Professor Nina Kohn.

“Congratulations to Jessica on her outstanding success in passing the bar exam. Having the highest score is a tremendous accomplishment on top of becoming licensed to practice law,” says Associate Dean of Academic and Bar Support Kelly Curtis. “The best way to prepare for any bar exam is to be diligent in completing the bar preparation materials you have selected. Jessica is proof that putting in the study time and effort pays off in the end.”

Lanum outpaced the other top scorers on the Arizona UBE from Harvard Law School, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and University of California Berkeley School of Law

The College of Law Class of 2024 February 2024 bar passage rate for New York state test-takers is 94% and 90% for all jurisdictions.

In addition to offering free bar preparation materials through one of many commercial options, the College of Law’s Office of Academic and Bar Success conducts a series of Bar Bootcamp Programs with an intensive and focused review of topics you will see on the exam, effective exam taking strategies, skills enhancement, a structured study plan, and more,

In addition, the Office’s comprehensive bar preparation offerings include:

  • Bar Admissions Checklists highlighting everything students need to know for admission to law practice
  • A guide for Character and Fitness evaluations
  • Suggested courses to cover each examination topic
  • Recordings for self-paced study, including Bar Exam 101, Studying for the Bar as a Non-Traditional Student, the Path to New York Licensure, and more!

Proferssor Gregory Germain writes “The Manhattan District Attorney’s Convoluted Legal Case Against Donald Trump Gets More Convoluted”

Professor Gregory Germain has written a legal analysis of the Trump hush money case.

To request an interview with Professor Germain, please contact Ellen James Mbuqe, executive director of media relations, at ejmbuqe@syr.edu or Rob Conrad, College of Law Director of Communications and Media Relations at rtconrad@syr.edu.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Donald Trump with a “Class E” felony (the lowest felony in New York) under New York Penal Law § 175.10, for reimbursing his prior attorney, Michael Cohen, the $130,000 Cohen paid to Stormy Daniels to sign a non-disclosure agreement in the waning days before the 2016 election, and disguising those payments as attorney fees.  What does the District Attorney have to prove under NYPL § 175.10?

The case requires peeling an onion containing multiple layers of legal doctrine leading nowhere.

First, NYPL § 175.10 requires proof that the defendant committed a misdemeanor under NYPL § 175.05 (“A person is guilty of falsifying business records in the first degree [175.10] when he commits the crime of falsifying business records in the second degree [175.05], and . . . ”).  So the first step is for the District Attorney to prove the misdemeanor under Section 175.05.

Section 175.05, in turn, provides that the defendant is guilty of a misdemeanor “if, with the intent to defraud, you make, or even cause through other means, a false entry in an enterprise’s business records.”

So the District Attorney must first prove that Trump made the false business records “with the intent to defraud” in order to satisfy the misdemeanor under Section 175.05 that is a predicate to the felony under Section 175.10.  The District Attorney has not explained who Trump intended to defraud by falsifying the business records.

There are some appellate division cases that have suggested that a showing of intent to mislead is sufficient to satisfy the “defraud” requirement, although that loose reading of a criminal statute is dubious because criminal statutes are normally strictly interpreted, and “defraud” has a well-defined legal meaning.  Why would the legislature use the word “defraud” if they intended to criminalize an intent to mislead someone without the usual additional requirements for fraud, like proving that a victim suffered damages by relying on the truth of the misrepresentation.

In addition, the two year statute of limitations on the misdeamenor (New York law, CPL § 30.10(2)(a)) expired long ago, and the District Attorney did not charge Trump with the misdemeanor.  It is not clear whether the felony can stand when the misdemeanor is time barred.  The felony statute requires showing that the misdemeanor was committed, since the felony is really a penalty enhancement on the misdemeanor.

Second, in order for the business records misdemeanor to be bumped up to a Class E felony under Section 175.10, “his intent to defraud includes an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.”  So, in addition to proving that the business records were falsified to “defraud” someone, the District Attorney must show that Trump falsified the records to commit “another crime” separate from the fraud.

Judge Marshan allowed the District Attorney to proceed with the criminal prosecution without detailing exactly what the “fraud” or “other crime” was.  The District Attorney merely suggested that Trump may have committed state tax fraud, or violated the federal election laws, or violated New York election laws, but was not required to spell out the violations, or to pick which of them applied to each of the two separate crimes that must be proven under Section 175.10.

Well, now the District Attorney has told the court which horse he intends to ride in the case. It’s New York Election Law § 17.152. What is that?

New York Election Law § 17.152 makes it a misdemeanor to “conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to public office by unlawful means.”  There are very few cases applying this rather obscure statute, but on its face it requires showing an “unlawful” conspiracy.  So the misdemeanor requires proof of intent to “defaud,” the felony requires proof of intent to commit or cover up an independent crime, and the independent crime requires proof of a conspiracy by “unlawful means.”  What is the “fraud” or “unlawful means?”

Oh, and that Election Law misdemeanor is also barred by the two year statute of limitations on misdemeanors.

The District Attorney and many pundits have suggested that these three statutory requirements can be met merely by showing that Trump made the false records intending to influence the election.  But everything that every candidate does is an attempt to influence an election.  To constitute a felony, the acts to falsify records must have been “fraudulent” and “unlawful,” and that’s the catch.  What makes paying hush money “fraudulent” and “unlawful?”  Running for office is not like selling securities to the public.  There is no statute requiring full disclosure of all material facts.  Politicians have the highest level of free speech protection for their campaigns.

Some experts have suggested that the District Attorney does not need to prove that the underlying payment to Stormy Daniels was a crime, only that Trump thought it was a crime.  I disagree.  One cannot “intend” to commit or cover up a crime if what one intended to do was not a crime.  Yes, there are cases saying that the prosecutor need not charge and convict the person of the independent crime, but that does not excuse the prosecutor from proving that the intended act was in fact a crime.  If someone created false business records to cover up what they thought was a crime, but what they thought was a crime was in fact legal, then they would not be guilty under the statute.  Cases like People v. Taveras, 12 NY 3d 21 (2009), which held that the Section 175.10 only requires a showing of intent to commit the crime, even if the person did not go through with the crime, or People v. Thompson, 124 A.D. 3d 448 (NY App Div. 2015), which held that the person does not have to be charged with or convicted of the separate crime, are not on point.  What was intended must be a crime, and the District Attorney must prove that it was or would have been a crime if the defendant followed through, in order to meet the statutory requirement.  Falsifying business records with intent to commit a legal act is not a crime under the statute.

The District Attorney will be able to prove the facts that he has alleged.  Despite Trump’s denials, the argument that Michael Cohen paid $175,000 to Stormy Daniels on his own does not seem credible.  There surely was an understanding that Trump would reimburse Cohen for the payments.  We do not know why the payments to Stormy Daniels were made by Michael Cohen.  I suspect that someone (maybe Michael Cohen) suggested structuring the payments that way to prevent a paper trail back to Trump, so that he could plausibly deny paying hush money to a porn actress if the payment became public.

But why were those payments “unlawful” or “fraudulent?”  Who even knew about and could have been misled by the false business records at the time of the election?  How would Trump even know about the obscure New York Election Law § 17.152 provision that he is being accused of intentionally concealing?  These are fundamental problems with the legal theory underlying the case.

But if it would have been legal for Trump to have paid Stormy Daniels directly, then disguising the payments through Michael Cohen did not show an “intent to . . . conceal another crime,” nor a conspiracy to “unlawfully” influence an election.  The District Attorney’s case is now based on three criminal statutes all of which depend on separate frauds or crimes that have not been clearly alleged or proven.

Where does the case go from here.  The outcome of the trial will likely depend on Judge Merchan’s jury instructions.  Will Judge Merchan’s instructions require the jury to identify the specific fraud and independent unlawful act made to influence the election separate from the business records falsification, or will the instructions only require proof that Trump tried to hide his hush money payments to influence the election, ignoring the requirement to clearly identify a separate fraud and unlawful act.

If Trump is convicted, will Judge Merchan sentence him to prison on a first-time non-violent Class E felony, creating a constitutional crisis in the middle of the election?  Or merely give him probation and leave him free to rail against the corrupt judicial process while appealing his conviction.  If the judge sentences Trump to prison, will it be upheld on appeal?  And if Trump goes to prison, what happens to the election?

If the Democratic Party thought that this prosecution would benefit their election, I think they blundered badly.  Trump is benefitting from the publicity, successfully portraying himself as the victim of a political witch hunt.  Ultimately, the election will not be decided by the courts.  Trump could run for and be elected president whether he’s convicted and sent to jail or not.  And the greater the penalty, the more likely he will win the election.  Knowing that they can’t knock Trump out of the race, what is the prosecution’s end game?

College of Law Celebrates the Class of 2024 Commencement

Judge Graves delivering the commencement remarks from the podium
Commencement Speaker the Hon. James E. Graves Jr. G’80, L’80, U.S. Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Syracuse University College of Law recently held Commencement exercises for the Class of 2024. The Class of 2024 includes 208 recipients of the J.D. degree, 26 LL.M. graduates, and one S.J.D. degree .

An S.D.J. graduate receives his diploma

Class of 2024 Commencement Speaker the Hon. James E. Graves Jr. G’80, L’80, U.S. Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, said, in part, “Begin each day expecting that the world owes you nothing, because it doesn’t, and then you will be delighted with every kind word, every helping hand, and every little smile, which is given to you during the day. Remember that as you go through life you will inevitably encounter and interact with people. You’re making memories for those people. Make those memories, those moments, positive.”

Dean Craig M. Boise awards a diploma to an LL.M. graduate

Dean Craig M. Boise said to the Class “In a world that is increasingly characterized by division, injustice, and inequality, the need for principled, compassionate, and courageous advocates has never been greater. You are the future leaders of the legal profession, and the challenges that lie ahead will require vision, integrity, and a steadfast commitment to justice. Let your actions speak louder than words and let your commitment to justice be a beacon of hope in a world that is often filled with darkness.”

Professor Kelly Curtis received an award from Omnia Shedid
Teaching Professor and Associate Dean of Academic and Bar Success Kelly Curtis receiving the Res Ipsa Loquitor Award.

During Commencement, the J.D. Class of 2024 awarded Teaching Professor and Associate Dean of Academic and Bar Success Kelly Curtis the Res Ipsa Loquitor Award (voted upon by the graduating class in recognition of a faculty member who has demonstrated exceptional commitment and service to the College of Law) and Assistant Director of Student Experience Vicki Donella the Staff Award (voted upon by the graduating class in recognition of a College of Law staff member in recognition of their support of students and faculty, and their accomplishments that make the College run day-to-day.)

Students gather in their caps and gowns during the 2024 commencement ceremony

The LL.M. Class of 2024 awarded Associate Professor of Law Jenny Breen the Lucet Lex Mundum Award (voted upon by the graduating LL.M. class, it recognizes the professor who has made a significant impact on the success and experiences of LL.M. students during their studies.)