A native of East Chicago is in the national spotlight as Donald Trump continues to question his performance as a federal judge.
During a recent rally in San Diego, the Republican presidential nominee described U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel as hostile and a "hater of Donald Trump."
Thursday, he declared to the Wall Street Journal that Curiel has “an absolute conflict” with his case concerning Trump University because Curiel is “of Mexican heritage.” Also that day, he tweeted that he will win the case in San Diego, though he has a "very biased and unfair judge."
Curiel is a judge in the Southern District of California who is presiding in one of the class-action lawsuits targeting Trump University. The lawsuit alleges the seminars and classes were like infomercials and pressured students to spend more money on the program.
Curiel recently had ruled in favor of The Washington Post after it sought the release of 1,000 pages of documents in the case.
During the rally, Trump told his supporters he was "getting railroaded by a legal system that — frankly, they should be ashamed." He called for Curiel to recuse himself.
"The judge who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that's fine," Trump said. "You know what? I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump when I give all these jobs."
Trump has made critical remarks throughout his campaign against Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims and women.
East Chicago native Gregory Vega, who is best friends with Curiel, said Trump's remarks won't intimidate Curiel. Both graduated in 1971 from Bishop Noll Institute.
"He grew up in the Harbor, he had a credible threat on his life by a Tijuana cartel, do you really think that being called names is going to frighten him?" Vega said. "The answer is no, of course not."
Family, professional ties to Indiana
Curiel's brother, Raul Curiel, said Gonzalo Curiel was the youngest of four children who were all born in St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.
His parents were natives of Mascota, Mexico, a small town near Puerto Vallarta. His father came to the U.S. through the Bracero Program and followed a cousin to East Chicago after hearing about better jobs in the steel mills.
Raul Curiel said his father was a legal resident when his mother joined him in the U.S. She later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
He recalled the family growing up in East Chicago's Harbor section among neighbors who were Serbian, Greek, Polish, Puerto Rican and African-American.
"We never had animosity toward other ethnic groups, because we lived with them," Raul Curiel said.
They were all involved in sports and graduated from Bishop Noll Institute. He said Gonzalo Curiel attended Indiana University to study music, but he later changed his major to follow in the footsteps of their brother who attended law school.
Gonzalo Curiel graduated in 1979 from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He worked as a private attorney in Dyer before moving to California to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego and Los Angeles. He was a San Diego Superior Court judge when President Barack Obama in 2012 appointed him to serve as a federal judge.
Kenneth Turchi, assistant dean for finance and administration at the Maurer School of Law, said Curiel has maintained ties to the school.
He returned to campus in April after he was selected for the Academy of Law Alumni Fellows, which Turchi said is the highest honor the school gives to its alumni.
Curiel was the commencement speaker in 2014 for the school. He co-founded a scholarship in memory of his brother, Antonio Curiel, who also graduated from the law school.
Vega was the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of California from 1999 to 2001. He appointed Gonzalo Curiel to chief of the department's narcotics division.
He said Gonzalo Curiel led the prosecution of several members of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel from Tijuana, Mexico. During that period, Vega said Curiel received a credible threat from the cartel that resulted in U.S. marshals providing security for him for a year.
He described Gonzalo Curiel as hardworking and intelligent.
"He possesses all of the attributes that you would want in a judge," he said.
Attorney Roy Dominguez said he knew Curiel from their time together in the Lake County Hispanic Bar Association. He recalled everyone knowing Curiel would succeed.
After hearing Trump's comments, Dominguez said he knew the remarks wouldn't faze Curiel.
"He has strong values and certainly wouldn't let that affect his judicial decision in the case," Dominguez said. "As a judge or as a person, he always had a sense of who he was."
Raul Curiel, of Hammond, said his family has been keeping up with the news about Trump's comments. He said most of his family is in favor of immigration, which is why it was hurtful to see his brother used as a "ploy" for Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric.
"I'm used to Donald Trump shooting off his mouth and not knowing what he's saying," he said.
Still, Raul Curiel said it was unexpected that his brother has now become part of Trump's remarks.
Impact of remarks on judicial system
Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Charles Gardner Geyh said he doesn't think Trump's comments will lead to Curiel's recusing himself or cause difficulties obtaining a jury in the case.
Geyh also doesn't think federal judges like Curiel will be intimidated by Trump's remarks.
Geyh, who wrote "Courting Peril: The Political Transformation of the American Judiciary," said politics has become infused in judicial elections throughout the past 50 years. He said this particularly has been noted in Illinois.
There has been an uptick in criticizing judges as liberal activists. But Trump's criticism of Curiel is distinct, Geyh said, in that it is personal rather than focusing on a specific ruling.
"He's accusing Curiel of lacking integrity, of being a hater not because of a misunderstanding of the law, but because he is Mexican, appointed by Obama," Geyh said.
"Exhibit A is the ruling against him. I think it's worrisome that a would-be president would take an order that personally."
He said other high-profile politicians who have been impacted by a court ruling haven't vented in the way Trump did during the rally.
He pointed out that Al Gore accepted a court ruling that cost him the presidency, and Richard Nixon didn't impugn the integrity of the court after a ruling ended his presidency.
Attorney Felipe Sanchez attended law school with Curiel's brother. He said while the public is free to criticize judges' decisions if they are improper or not based on law, he doesn't believe ethnicity should factor into criticism.
"Generally people may disagree with a judge's decision, but you don't make it personal," he said. "The great thing about our nation is that judges are independent of our government."
Lake Criminal Judge Salvador Vasquez in 2003 became the first judge of Mexican descent to serve on the bench in the criminal division of Lake Superior Court. Vasquez is a native of Lake Station, and his parents are from Mexico.
Pointing out that his name doesn't hide his ethnicity, Vasquez said he can't recall anyone ever citing his Mexican descent to criticize a ruling or decision he has made while on the bench. Vasquez believes comments about his ethnicity would be improper, because the remarks wouldn't be a reflection of his work on the bench.
"Comments that appeal to a person's prejudice, in my opinion are inherently wrong and improper," Vasquez said.