Ghislaine Maxwell trial: Who is judge Alison Nathan?

‘Greatly respected’ by Elon Musk, targeted by conservatives for her LGBTQ pro bono work, Judge Alison Nathan appears destined for coveted federal circuit court post after Maxwell trial

Bevan Hurley
Tuesday 28 December 2021 16:13
Ghislaine Maxwell Trial: Day 7

Towards the end of a marathon cross-examination of pilot David Rodgers on day eight of the Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking trial, defence Christian Everdell paused to check the time.

“I thought it was later than it already was,” said Mr Everdell.

Judge Alison Nathan

“It just feels like it,” Judge Alison Nathan shot back.

The comment drew a murmur of laughter from the court, who had heard hours of repetitive testimony from Jeffrey Epstein’s former personal pilot as he described dozens of flights he had flown for the late paedophile.

It was a rare moment of levity in what has been an acrimonious battle between two sets of lawyers who have repeatedly clashed over the admissibility of testimony and exhibits, over witness lists and points of law.

Ms Maxwell is accused of six counts of sex trafficking. She strongly denies all of the charges.

The judge has been called on to make many crucial rulings in the case, such as when she declined to allow a schoolgirl’s outfit found in Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse during a 2019 FBI raid to be entered into evidence.

And attorneys on both sides agreed that Ms Maxwell’s ‘little black book’ would not be shown to the jury after Judge Nathan warned against “needless” namedropping.

Prior to the trial, Judge Nathan denied Ms Maxwell’s requests to be released on bail four times due to her being a flight risk.

Ms Maxwell and supporters had offered to put up $28.5m, agree to 24-hour armed guards and renounce her citizenships in the United Kingdom and France.

In a trial where every inch has been scrapped over, Judge Nathan has had to make dozens of borderline decisions about whether a particular line of questioning should be allowed.

She often asks the attorney for the grounds of a particular objection, consults the court transcript, and only then offers an “overruled” or “sustained”.

During especially harrowing testimony from the accuser known in court as Carolyn, Judge Nathan had to interject several times to direct the witness to comply with her orders.

Judge Nathan has also shown a keenness to overcome unexpected hurdles.

On the opening day during a lengthy delay over jury swearing in, Judge Nathan personally called the HR department of one juror’s employer to see if they would extend the length of time they paid for jury duty.

Judge Nathan eventually reported back to the court that the employer had extended its two weeks pay for jury service and the trial could begin.

Judge Nathan has presided over a particularly acrimonious trial as both sets of lawyers have fought over witness testimony and evidence

As the prosecution wrapped up its case on Friday after two weeks of evidence, the court was notified there would be a five day pause before the defence began.

Judge Nathan had been selected by President Joe Biden for promotion to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and she had to attend a Senate confirmation hearing in Washington DC on Wednesday.

The judge was grilled by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for several hours about her views on the Second Amendment, voting rights, and her past legal advocacy work, the New York Times reported.

John Kennedy, the Republican Senator from Louisiana, asked Judge Nathan: “Do you think America is mostly good or mostly bad?”

After telling a story about taking her twin sons to the Supreme Court where she once clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens, she said: “I’m proud to be a part of this American judicial system.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mr. Kennedy responded. “But do you think America is mostly good or mostly bad?”

“America is mostly good, Senator,” she replied.

If confirmed, Judge Nathan would be one rung on the judicial ladder below the Supreme Court, and just the second openly LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal circuit court.

At just 49 years old, Judge Nathan would still have plenty of time left to continue her ascent.

Her nomination to become a district court judge in 2011 was met with fierce objection by conservative groups including Heritage Action for America, which threatened to “punish senators who voted to confirm her”, according to The Advocate.

Another conservative activist organisation, Concerned Women for America’s Legislative Action Committee, reportedly wrote to senators to complain about her LGBTQ “political activism” and “judicial temperament”.

The group said Judge Nathan had provided “pro bono representation for the ACLU, Lambda Legal, Service Members Legal Defense Network, and individual service members in challenges to the so-called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.”

“Her biases are so ingrained and so much the main thrust of her career that it is not rational to believe that she will suddenly change once confirmed as a judge,” they wrote, according to The Advocate.

She was supported by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who argued on the Senate floor there should not be a “different standard” for Judge Nathan.

She was eventually confirmed 48-44.

A graduate of Cornell Law School, Judge Nathan was appointed in 2011 to the District Court by then President Barack Obama.

She had previously served as an associate White House counsel and special assistant to President Obama, and later as a special counsel to New York State’s solicitor general.

In 2019, Judge Nathan presided over a case involving Tesla founder and Time person of the year Elon Musk.

During an ongoing dispute with the SEC over Mr Musk’s use of social media, Judge Nathan ordered the two parties to meet to decide what the billionaire should be allowed to post on Twitter.

After the case was resolved, Mr Musk said in a statement he had “great respect” for the judge.

Elon Musk said he ‘greatly respected’ Judge Nathan after she oversaw his case with the SEC

Judge Nathan also oversaw a request from disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who in 2019 asked for an emergency appeal in connection with a sex trafficking charge he faced.

She rejected Weinstein’s claim, ruling that the the order of a fellow judge who died earlier that year was “careful and convincing,” the Associated Press reported.

Judge Nathan and her partner, law professor Meg Satterthwaite, are the parents of twin sons, according to The Advocate.

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