Jury Selection to Begin in Trump Hush Money Trial: Live Updates

Inside a dreary Lower Manhattan courtroom on a recent Wednesday, Justice Juan M. Merchan convened a special session for people with mental health troubles who had landed in legal jeopardy. He calmly counseled them, praised any signs of progress and shook the hand of one man who, thanks to medication, had turned his life around.

But a different type of criminal defendant is now testing the judge’s equanimity: Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s trial on charges that he covered up a sex scandal before and after the 2016 presidential election will bring a maelstrom that no other judge in New York’s vast judiciary has ever experienced.

Known as a no-nonsense, drama-averse jurist, Justice Merchan, 61, has already reprimanded Mr. Trump’s lawyers for arguments that he considered frivolous and issued a gag order intended to protect prosecutors, witnesses and his own family from Mr. Trump’s vitriol — and yet the former president has continued to post articles with pictures of the judge’s daughter, a political consultant who has worked with Democratic candidates.

Although Justice Merchan is a registered Democrat, records show he was previously a Republican, and people who know him described the judge as a moderate, law-and-order former prosecutor.

Two people close to Justice Merchan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the judge had privately expressed pain over the attacks on his daughter, but the people said that those attacks won’t compromise his ability to oversee the case. Other people who know the judge said that he will cast aside Mr. Trump’s drama — and exert control over the trial.

“It is Judge Merchan’s show,” said Jill Konviser, a retired judge who has known Justice Merchan for more than 15 years. She added: “He will do everything he can to, one, control his courtroom and two, ensure a fair trial for the defendant.”

In Justice Merchan’s 17 years on the bench, 13 as presiding judge in the Mental Health Court he created, he has had his share of unusual cases. There was a murder trial involving a supposed curse on the defendant; the daredevils who jumped off the World Trade Center with parachutes; and a so-called soccer-mom madam accused of running a high-end brothel on the Upper East Side. In that case, an appeals court reduced the steep bail Justice Merchan had set, calling it “unreasonable.”

None of those defendants challenged the judge quite like Mr. Trump, who claims that the case is a witch hunt and declared that Justice Merchan’s gag order had infringed on his First Amendment rights.

The former president has tested the order’s limits by posting articles that named and attacked Justice Merchan’s daughter, Loren, and his wife, Lara. The articles, by the conservative activist Laura Loomer, included photos of Loren Merchan and copies of a 2007 mortgage statement for a house owned by Justice Merchan and his wife. Previously, Mr. Trump falsely accused Loren Merchan of posting an image of him behind bars on social media.

The trial, which could last two months as a parade of former aides and allies takes the stand against him, will dominate Justice Merchan’s calendar this spring.

On off-days, he will continue to preside over Mental Health Court. The program is for defendants charged with felonies and diagnosed with a serious mental illness. People who are accepted enter a guilty plea and then begin a period of treatment and judicial supervision. Those who complete the program successfully can have their charges reduced or dismissed.

During one recent session, Justice Merchan showed particular interest in the relationship between a defendant and his child, and praised him for his dedication.

“You want to do better by your daughter,” Justice Merchan said. “I’m sure she’s going to appreciate that.”

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