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Ghislaine Maxwell Trial: New Wrinkle as Judge May Be Promoted

The Manhattan judge presiding in the high-profile trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the longtime associate of Jeffrey Epstein, will be recommended to the White House on Tuesday evening for a prestigious federal appeals court post by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, his office said.

The judge, Alison J. Nathan, 49, has spent a decade on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On Tuesday, she was overseeing jury selection in the trial of Ms. Maxwell, who has been charged with sex trafficking and with helping Mr. Epstein recruit, groom and ultimately sexually abuse girls. Ms. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty.

The trial, in which opening arguments are scheduled for Nov. 29, could last six weeks, defense lawyers and prosecutors have said in court filings.

If Judge Nathan is nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate during the trial, she could still continue to preside in the case, two legal ethics experts said. Judges are frequently elevated to appeals courts from lower courts where they are actively involved in trials and other cases.

Still, the Maxwell trial, with its connection to Mr. Epstein and the worldwide attention it has attracted, is anything but a routine matter.

Asked whether Judge Nathan would stay on the case if nominated for the appellate judgeship, Edward Friedland, a spokesman for the District Court, said in a statement that he could “neither confirm nor deny that she is under consideration.”

“But I have every reason to believe that if she is recommended or nominated she would — as is customary for lower court judges who are nominated to higher courts — continue to do her day job and preside over the trial to its conclusion,” Mr. Friedland said.

Mr. Schumer, the Democratic majority leader and the party’s senior lawmaker in New York State, is recommending Judge Nathan for a seat on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is one level below the Supreme Court.

The recommendation means Judge Nathan is almost certain to be nominated by the White House, as presidents, in choosing judges and U.S. attorneys, traditionally defer to their party’s senior lawmaker in each state.

Mr. Schumer, in a statement on Tuesday, said Judge Nathan’s “experience, legal brilliance, love of the rule of law and perspective would be invaluable in ensuring the federal judiciary fulfills its obligation to ensure equal justice for all.”

Mr. Schumer’s office also noted that Judge Nathan would be the second openly gay woman to serve on the Second Circuit.

Judge Nathan was appointed to the District Court by President Barack Obama in 2011. She earlier served as a special counsel to the solicitor general of New York State, in the state attorney general’s office. Before that, she was an associate White House counsel and special assistant to Mr. Obama.

Judge Nathan is a graduate of Cornell Law School and served as a law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens in the Supreme Court’s 2001-2 term.

It is not unprecedented for a federal appellate judge, even after confirmation, to continue to hear cases in the trial court, the legal experts said.

At least two former judges on the District Court in Manhattan — Denny Chin and Richard J. Sullivan — continued to handle cases in the lower court after they were appointed to the Second Circuit.

Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, said the only theoretical issue she could foresee would be if Judge Nathan were confirmed quickly and her new duties pulled her away “from a very time-consuming trial.”

“But I think that’s unlikely given the timeline here,” Professor Roiphe said.

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said one hypothetical question was whether Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers might seek to have the judge recuse herself because the Biden administration would be in a position to derail her promotion if she did not favor the government in the trial.

But he said in his view, based on hundreds of cases involving judicial recusal, a promotion like Judge Nathan’s would not provide a basis for such a request.

“This does not even come close to the sort of interest that leads to recusal,” he said.

Judge Nathan is known for her independence, and in at least two cases she issued blistering criticism of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan after it was accused of failing to turn over potentially favorable evidence to the defense before trial.

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