16 people who shaped the 2016 election: Judge Gonzalo Curiel

By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

Until Feb. 26, 2016, hardly anyone outside his own courtroom had heard of U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel of the Southern District of California. Curiel, a former U.S. prosecutor and state Superior Court judge, had been named by President Obama to the federal bench in 2011. In 2014 he drew the case of Tarla Makaeff v. Trump University — a class-action suit brought by students at Donald Trump’s unaccredited business school, alleging, in effect, that the whole enterprise was a scam that charged tens of thousands of dollars for useless three-day seminars.

It isn’t clear exactly what Curiel did, in the course of a series of routine rulings over the next two years, to bring on Trump’s wrath — except refuse to dismiss the suit outright, which was what Trump and his lawyers thought should happen. But in the middle of an Arkansas rally in late February, between denunciations of his rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump lurched into an extended riff on the case and the “tremendous hostility, beyond belief” of the judge. “I believe he happens to be Spanish,” Trump continued, “which is fine — he’s Hispanic, which is fine” — throwing a handkerchief of deniability over what would turn into a dump-truck-load of insults over the next four months.

Donald Trump and Judge Gonzalo Curiel. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Judge Gonzalo Curiel. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

In an echo of Trump’s campaign to paint Obama as un-American, he described Curiel — who was born in Indiana to immigrant parents — as a “Mexican,” and added, in what struck horrified observers as an implied threat of political retaliation, “They ought to look into Judge Curiel. … We will come back in November,” presumably as president-elect. (It isn’t clear what a President Trump could do to him, though; federal judges have lifetime tenure, barring impeachment.) Trump attempted to deflect the charges of racism by, in effect, conceding that he had given Curiel good reason to hate him — “we’re building a wall” — but eventually, on June 7, he threw in the towel and announced he would stop commenting on the case, which had become a symbol of his poisoned relations with minorities. Curiel, bound by rules of judicial behavior, spoke only from the bench, setting a trial date for the case, which is now known as Low v. Trump University. Win or lose on Nov. 8, Trump has a date in court for Nov. 28. — By Jerry Adler

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