By David Voreacos and Neil Weinberg, Bloomberg News
The bribery trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez has featured testimony about private jet trips, Caribbean resorts and a bevy of his co-defendant’s girlfriends.
Even so, much of the spiciest dialogue has come from the judge.
“Shut up,” U.S. District Judge William Walls snapped at a lawyer for Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
“I’ll slap you down,” he warned defense attorneys and prosecutors.
“You are really no good as a juror, and you may not be any good as a teacher,” Walls told a potential juror while dismissing her for defying his texting ban.
Walls, a diminutive 84-year-old, is a self-described curmudgeon who has kept both legal teams on edge. He doesn’t care whether he’s dealing with one of the hottest defense lawyers in Washington, a prosecutor out to make his name or an inattentive juror.
The judge’s rulings may affect the outcome of a case that reverberates in Washington, since Menendez’s seat in the Senate
— where Republicans have a slim majority — could be at stake.
Walls declined to comment on his courtroom demeanor, as did Menendez lawyer Abbe Lowell and prosecutors.
Walls is keenly aware that his comments could sway jurors and become grounds for an appeal, so he’s reserved his sharpest barbs for when the panel is outside the courtroom. Nor has his conduct ever prompted any complaints or disciplinary action against him, according to the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics.
One of Walls’s pet peeves is when lawyers stray from his directives to limit the type of evidence they present.
Prosecutor J.P. Cooney endured an outburst from Walls while questioning the government’s first witness — an FBI analyst who recounted the senator’s stay in a $1,500-a-night hotel suite in Paris paid for by co-defendant Salomon Melgen. After Cooney asked about Menendez’s request for a room with a limestone bath and rain shower, Walls laid into prosecutors.
“It’s not going to be a tabloid trial, and I am not going to let you just swish and swash nonsensical” with “scenarios that really don’t even make for a good pulp fiction story,” Walls thundered. Prosecutors got the message, toning down some of the salacious details.
Walls bristles at efforts that might slow the trial. When Menendez attorney Raymond Brown complained that Walls had disparaged the defense by refusing to alter the trial schedule to accommodate Senate votes in Washington, Walls dismissed it as “nonsense.”
“Shut up for a moment if you don’t mind,” he said.
Walls pronouncements aren’t all laced with vitriol. He likened a ruling to the Jewish stew tzimmes, proclaimed himself a vegetarian, and encouraged the attorneys to heed lessons from a favorite movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” In ordering attorneys to work out a scheduling dispute, the judge said, “You’re grown boys and women, and you are out of legal Pampers.”
Born in 1932 into a poor family in Atlantic City, Walls was raised by his father and grandmother; his mother left when he was two. He relied on scholarships to attend Dartmouth College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and Yale Law School.
Walls practiced law in Newark and served as the city’s corporation counsel and a municipal judge before moving to state court. President Bill Clinton appointed him to the federal bench in 1994.
Stephen Orlofsky, a former federal judge in New Jersey, praised Walls’s integrity. “He has high standards for all lawyers who appear before him,” Orlofsky said. “He has absolutely no biases one way or the other.”
Lowell, Menendez’s defense lawyer, is considered a rock star among Washington defense lawyers for representing politicians. His A-list clients include Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. But his pedigree hasn’t helped him with Walls. The two have repeatedly clashed since 2015, when a grand jury indicted Menendez and Melgen, a Florida eye doctor.
The tension flared on Sept. 20 when Walls ruled that Lowell couldn’t pursue a certain line of questioning. Lowell complained, and the judge responded that he took “personal umbrage” at suggestions that Menendez’s rights had been violated. It was “almost to a point of professional insult,” Walls said. Appearing startled, Lowell said he’d intended no offense.
In another episode, Walls told Lowell he couldn’t question an FBI agent about whether he’d leaked details of the case to the media. Lowell’s line of inquiry was “devoid of merit,” said Walls, who suggested he showed a lack of “intellectual honesty.”
Lowell reminded Walls that the trial’s first witness was an FBI analyst and he’d permitted similar questioning of her.
“You have said to me that I went up to the podium knowing I was going to do something wrong,” Lowell said. “I have never done that in my career.”
Walls has taken shots at prosecutors, too. After defense attorneys accused the prosecution of using their allotted jury challenges to dismiss minorities, Walls, who is African- American, pressed prosecutor Peter Koski to explain. Koski said he’d stricken one woman because she’d been foreperson of a jury that failed to reach a verdict in a criminal case.
“Tell me, under what God’s rule do you do that?” Walls asked Koski. The judge said the defense hadn’t shown discrimination, although prosecutors “came damn close to it and we put that on the record.” The dispute could be used as grounds for an appeal.
Menendez is accused of accepting campaign contributions, private jet trips and luxury vacations from Melgen in exchange for intervening with the government to help with the doctor’s business disputes. Both men deny wrongdoing, arguing they’re close friends who exchanged gifts with no corrupt intent.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
“I’ve done enough knocking heads today,” Walls said, as the trial’s second day concluded. “As you know, I don’t want my middle name to be called Torquemada.” Under Tomas de Torquemada, the first grand inquisitor of Spain, an estimated 2,000 people were burned at the stake.
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