New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez is on trial, and the case is moving slowly
Jurors looked sluggish Monday in court
Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal bribery trial is expected to last up to two months – and patience already appears to be wearing thin.
“I’m sick and tired of listening to this,” US District Court Judge William Walls barked at an attorney Monday morning, kicking off week three of the trial in Newark, New Jersey. “We’ll be here until this time next year if I permit you to ask needless questions.”
And judging by the looks of the jury at certain points – slumped over or shifting in their chairs, rubbing their faces and at least a few periodically resting their eyes Monday – they were equally exhausted listening to prosecutors slog through even the more salacious bits of evidence in the case.
Prosecutors accuse the New Jersey Democrat of accepting rides on private jets and upscale vacations from his friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors – allegations the two men deny.
And while much of the factual evidence is not in dispute, prosecutors and defense lawyers continue to joust with each other, and the judge, frequently during the trial over what the jury is and is not allowed to hear.
“You’re dragging this case on unnecessarily by insulting the jury,” Walls warned both sides Monday. “You’re really insulting the intelligence of the jury. … The jury isn’t stupid and naive.”
Some experts predict the sluggish pace of the trial could have implications beyond the courtroom.
Last week the judge approved a trial schedule stretching to Thanksgiving, with several shortened weeks to accommodate Jewish holidays – dimming the possibility that Republican Gov. Chris Christie will get a shot at selecting at Menendez’s replacement if he’s convicted before Christie leaves office in January.
“The longer it goes – the better for Democrats,” Seton Hall University political science professor Matthew Hale said. “If the trial stretches out past January 16, regardless of the outcome, the Democrats will be in a good position to hold the seat.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Democratic nominee Phil Murphy with a comfortable lead over the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
Other experts point out that even if Menendez is convicted, he would not automatically lose his Senate seat, as it takes two-thirds of his colleagues to expel him. Not to mention the fact that he would undoubtedly appeal the verdict, further extending the prospect of a Democratic hold on the reliably blue Senate seat.
“Congress is unlikely to be able to force him out that quickly, if at all,” said Randall Eliason, a law professor at George Washington University and a former federal prosecutor of public corruption cases. “Nothing happens that fast in Congress. Whatever happens is going to drag into next year.”
Politics aside, Eliason cautioned that lawyers have to balance how best to present the evidence or risk losing the jury’s attention.
Prosecutors on Monday continued to methodically question witnesses about the minutiae of swanky accommodations at two resorts in the Dominican Republic where Menendez and Melgen vacationed.
“It’s always a challenge to keep the jury engaged,” Eliason said. “In a case like this, you establish the point, get in that something was super luxurious and then move on pretty quickly.”
But one prosecutor wasn’t quick enough in the judge’s view on Monday – and got called out in front of jurors for his questioning of one witness about villas at Casa de Campo.
“Off-the-record, counsel, … I think I’ve seen you on ‘House Hunters,’ ” Walls said, to roaring laughter from the jury.