When the crowd leaves Trump's hush-money trial, the judge spends his day in a very different kind of court

  • Trump's hush-money trial pauses Wednesdays for Manhattan mental health court cases.

  • It's a completely different world once Trump and journalists decamp.

  • Merchan remains his same commanding self but acts more like a kindly uncle than a strict headmaster.

For the past six weeks, the person in the chair has been the former president of the United States.

It is padded and made from weathered leather. The former president, who is also the presumptive Republican nominee in the next presidential election, makes himself comfortable.

He sits there for hours, leaning back, his eyes narrowed to slits, listening to his enemies testify against him.

He is flanked by a team of lawyers. Behind him are politicians from Washington, DC, paying fealty. Behind them, rows and rows of journalists sit for hours in hard, weathered wooden benches, shifting in their seats for a better look.

But on this day, a Wednesday, the chair was filled with a succession of anxious New Yorkers who had admitted to their crimes. They were there to get help.

The jury in Donald Trump's hush-money trial, over a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, is known not to sit on Wednesday. While the judge, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, is currently presiding over arguably the highest-profile criminal case in American history, he keeps the middle of his week clear for Manhattan's mental health court.

It is a completely different world. For Trump's trial, journalists and members of the public spend hours lining up outside the court, hoping to snag a seat in the courtroom or in a spillover room where they watch the proceedings on large TV screens. Hundreds are turned away.

On the two recent Wednesdays at the mental health court, in the same linoleum-tiled 15th-floor courtroom during the trial's off days, a Business Insider reporter was the only journalist there.

But for these Wednesday defendants, the stakes are no less high. They have effectively won the lottery to be offered another chance and avoid time in prison. It is hard.

In some respects, Merchan is his same old self in these sessions. He moves briskly and is on high alert for lawyerly evasiveness.

But in other ways, Merchan carries a different attitude.

Merchan plays the role of a strict headmaster in Trump's trial, holding high standards and keeping all the lawyers and witnesses on track. After a month of testimony, jurors will begin deliberating this week.

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Former President Donald Trump is photographed in a packed courtroom during his criminal hush-money trial.Curtis Means - Pool/Getty Images

Merchan has held Trump in contempt 10 times for violating his gag order and threatened jail time, remaining vigilant after the former president's lawyers tried numerous attempts to delay the trial (and succeeding once).

In his mental health court, though, Merchan, who has presided over felony criminal trials since 2009, is more like a kindly uncle. He appears to genuinely want everyone to succeed. When a defendant shares a promising update, he cheers them on. When he chides, he does it gently.

"Keep it up," he tells defendants who give updates showing their lives are on track.

"You definitely turned it around since the last time I saw you, and I'm very glad to see that," he recently told one defendant after their lawyer said their client was improving after a rocky start to the program.

Not everyone has such good news to share.

The weather outdoors during two recent sessions was warm, but Merchan blasted the air conditioning, keeping the courtroom, which Trump derisively calls "the icebox," chilly.

On one day, a court employee wore a heavy black parka that reached past her knees. The hangers on the courtroom's coat rack remained untouched.

One defendant living in a treatment facility was caught with a contraband nicotine vape pen under her pillow. She was unable to get her usual prescription medications because her therapist had a "computer issue," she said. Merchan appeared let down, but remained sympathetic rather than skeptical, as some other judges might be.

In turn, the woman opened up to him about her depressive struggles to get out of bed, to go to group treatment sessions, or do much of anything. She was frozen with anxiety when she thought about the future, she said.

"I'm going to be honest with you, your honor," she said. "I'm not doing too great."

Sitting high above her at the bench, Merchan expressed his own frustrations about the world's unfairness and told her she didn't need to apologize for anything. The pressure of the future she was feeling, he said, was really the pressure of the responsibility she'll have for her own life once she graduates from the program.

"The future is going to be there," he said. "And you're going to be ready for it."

But he was still firm, reminding her that nicotine's addictive nature could put her back on the wrong path.

"You shouldn't be doing that," he said. "And we need to move past that."

"She is strong, and she can do this," her lawyer said.

"I agree," Merchan responded, beaming, before moving on to the next defendant.

Getting accepted is just the start

The Manhattan mental health court is one path available to those who plead guilty to felonies.

Few are able to take advantage of it.

Merchan is the sole judge of the mental health court in all of Manhattan, and has presided over it since its founding in 2011.

He is also the only judge overseeing another specialized court in Manhattan, which caters to veterans and has historically had a smaller caseload. Other specialized courts focus on defendants dealing with substance abuse issues and human trafficking. An Alternatives to Incarceration program, the largest diversion program in the borough, is also available as something of a catch-all, offering a holistic approach to criminal justice.

"No one's ever come out of prison better than they went in," Eliza Orlins, a New York City public defender who has represented several defendants in the mental health court, told Business Insider. "And so if there are things that we can do to help people rather than just punish them, obviously it's much, much better for everyone."

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New York Supreme Court Justice Juan M. Merchan posing in his chambers.AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The mental health court has 56 ongoing cases in various stages, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office told Business Insider. The figure represents a small percentage of the thousands of felony cases it brings each year. Defendants need to demonstrate they have a history of mental illness and might need to speak to the district attorney's office about their past traumas. If the office allows it, a mental health court treatment plan can become part of their plea agreement, which includes different consequences for failures. And once that's hammered out, Merchan needs to accept the plea.

"It's really hard, a huge burden to even get so far as to be accepted into mental health court," said Orlins. "And that's just the start of it."

For those who Merchan approves to enter the program, he refers defendants to a psychiatrist, who then comes up with an individualized plan to address mental health and potential substance abuse issues. Often, it involves living in a mental healthcare treatment facility.

The defendants check in every few weeks, and if they complete the program to the Merchan's satisfaction, the indictment is dismissed.

But if they commit new infractions or don't successfully complete the program, they can be hit with the recommended sentence in their plea agreement, which can mean time in state prison.

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Juan Merchan's empty courtroom, called Part 59.ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Between 2014 and 2021, 300 individuals were referred to the Manhattan mental health court, according to a report from the district attorney's office. In that time, 190 were accepted into the program. Of them, 100 participants graduated, a process that typically takes between 12 and 24 months.

Recovering from mental health episodes, Orlins said, is simply hard. Not everyone can do it.

"In theory, they're good. And if people are successful, sure, great. But it's hard," she said,

Merchan declined an interview request for this story, telling Business Insider he couldn't set aside any time during the ongoing Trump trial. In an interview with the Associated Press, before the trial began, he said the mental health court let him "see people through a different lens" than he did while presiding over only ordinary criminal cases.

'If you are ever struggling and having a hard time, just speak up'

Merchan might have a dozen cases each morning, spending as little as a few minutes on each defendant. The appearances look different than a normal criminal case.

In addition to the prosecutors and defense attorneys, there are case managers, standing at the lectern where lawyers normally question witnesses, who give updates about how each defendant is progressing in their mental health treatment program.

Each defendant has a story. Merchan listens carefully, looking directly at them and giving his full attention. When their lawyers make a request, he covers his hand with his mouth, as he often does during the Trump trial, a tic for when he is thinking about how to rule.

On a recent Wednesday, Merchan accepted one man's plea and inducted them into the mental health court.

"You're now in Manhattan mental health court," he said. "Welcome."

"If you are ever struggling and having a hard time, just speak up," the judge offered in a friendly voice.

Another defendant seemed like he would be headed for prison.

He had "absconded," according to his lawyer, after telling his chaperone, "Sorry man, I need to see my wife" and then slipping away. No one could find him.

"As far as we know, he doesn't have a wife," his lawyer said.

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A sketch of Merchan presiding in his courtroom.REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

The case manager seemed to tear up a little. The backlog of people trying to get into the defendant's treatment facility was long. And so even if he returned, he wouldn't be allowed back in. If you fail the mental health court program in such a dramatic fashion, the next step can be a sentencing hearing.

Merchan allowed law enforcement to go after him.

"Bench warrant entered," he said solemnly.

Another woman appearing before the judge had a more upbeat update. She spends an hour reading every day and recently subscribed to the Wall Street Journal's weekend section, her lawyer said. She befriended a woman named Iris at her local library, who helps her interpret sports statistics, according to the lawyer.

Merchan was encouraged. The future held promise.

"I would like to adjourn the case for graduation," he said, which would be held on June 26. It would be long after Trump had left, to return only for a possible sentencing.

The woman was the last case scheduled to be heard that day. But before everyone gathered their belongings, there was one more matter to address.

A tall, elderly, lanky lawyer had approached the well. He had a client who graduated from the program two years ago, he said, during which the client enrolled in business school. The client was now set to graduate from school and was seeking a job, and was worried that having the case on the books — even though the indictment was dismissed — would hurt his employment prospects.

Could the judge seal the case?

The prosecutors didn't object. "The case is sealed," Merchan said.

"Tell him I said hello and wish him well," Merchan said, smiling warmly.

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