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Why Civil Cases Against Donald Trump Can Pack a Punch

For months now, the country has been riveted by the four criminal cases against Donald Trump: the New York state case involving hush-money payments to an adult film star, the federal case involving classified documents, the Georgia election-interference case and the federal election-interference case. But some have been postponed or had important deadlines delayed. The only case with a realistic shot of producing a verdict before the election, the New York case, involves relatively minor charges of falsifying business records that are unlikely to result in any significant prison time. None of the other three are likely to be resolved before November.

It’s only the civil courts that have rendered judgments on Mr. Trump. In the first two months of 2024, Mr. Trump was hit with more than half a billion dollars in judgments in civil cases — around $450 million in the civil fraud case brought by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, and $83.3 million in the defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll.

For Trump opponents who want to see him behind bars, even a half-billion-dollar hit to his wallet might not carry the same satisfaction. But if, as Jonathan Mahler suggested back in 2020, “visions of Donald Trump in an orange jumpsuit” turn out to be “more fantasy than reality,” civil justice has already shown itself to be a valuable tool for keeping him in check — and it may ultimately prove more successful in the long run at reining him in.

The legal system is not a monolith but a collection of different, interrelated systems. Although not as heralded as the criminal cases against Mr. Trump, civil suits have proved effective in imposing some measure of accountability on him, in situations where criminal prosecution might be too delayed, divisive or damaging to the law.

To understand why the civil system has been so successful against Mr. Trump, it’s important to understand some differences between civil and criminal justice. Civil actions have a lower standard of proof than criminal ones. In the civil fraud case, Judge Arthur Engoron applied a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which required the attorney general to prove that it was more likely than not that Mr. Trump committed fraud. (Criminal cases require a jury to decide “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed a crime, a far higher standard.) As a result, it is much easier for those suing Mr. Trump in civil court to obtain favorable judgments.

These judgments can help — and already are helping — curb Mr. Trump’s behavior. Since Judge Engoron’s judgment in the civil fraud case, the monitor assigned to watch over the Trump Organization, the former federal judge Barbara Jones, has already identified deficiencies in the company’s financial reporting. After the second jury verdict in Ms. Carroll’s favor, Mr. Trump did not immediately return to attacking her, as he had in the past. (He remained relatively silent about her for several weeks, before lashing out again in March.)

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