The Republican Judge Who Could Decide the Fate of Stormy Daniels vs. Donald J. Trump

S. James Otero has presided over cases emblematic of the grit and glamour of the nation’s largest federal district—including corruption, reality TV, and Playboy Bunnies.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

After three decades on the bench, a federal judge’s experience adjudicating cases involving political corruption, reality television, and Playboy bunnies has reached the next logical step: presiding over an adult film star’s lawsuit against the president of the United States.

On Monday, the California Central District assigned Judge S. James Otero to hear Stephanie Clifford v. Donald J. Trump, et al., a lawsuit that claims the nondisclosure agreement signed by Stephanie Clifford—better known by her professional name, Stormy Daniels—is not legally binding because Trump himself did not sign it.

If the case is found in Daniels’ favor, she will be free to discuss without financial penalty her alleged 2006 affair with the future president, as well as the $130,000 settlement agreement she signed in exchange for her silence.

Originally filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the suit was moved to federal court upon the request of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, who also asserted in that filing that Daniels had violated the October 2016 settlement agreement at least 20 times—entitling Cohen and/or Trump to at least $20 million in penalties.

The suit has now landed in front of a judge known for his efficiency, consistency, and the occasional pop-culture reference in his rulings—and with a long history of presiding over cases emblematic of the unique blend of grit and glamour found in the nation’s largest federal district by population.

First assigned to California’s Central District by President George W. Bush in 2003 and confirmed to his seat with unanimous Senate consent, Otero, a Stanford Law School graduate and former Los Angeles city attorney, has served as an officer of the court for nearly 30 years. In that time, Otero has served as the presiding judge in numerous cases that are thematically, if not jurisprudentially, linked to Clifford v. Trump—and has acknowledged the outsized power of district court judges in those cases.

“We see the court system as a pyramid, with the Supreme Court on top and the district court on the bottom,” Otero told legal news service Law360 in 2012. “And it is, but in a very real sense, the power is with the district courts. If we don’t get it right, the opportunity for a party to reverse what we do here can be very difficult.”

In 2013, Otero rejected a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against NBC claiming that the network had stolen a reality television idea from a retired NYPD detective, noting that the two shows—Celebrity Seals and Stars Earn Stripes— were “uncannily similar.” (Trump’s own reality show, The Apprentice, coincidentally aired on the same network.)

In 2011, Otero frustrated federal prosecutors when he threw out as too harsh an initial agreement signed by Pierce O’Donnell, a litigator who’d pleaded guilty to funnelling tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to John Edward’s doomed 2004 presidential campaign.

On multiple occasions, Otero has even ruled on matters relating to the adult entertainment industry. When Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns, it was Otero who accepted his plea. In 2013, Otero granted a dismissal of Playboy Enterprises International Inc.’s lawsuit against an energy drink company over misuse of the famous bowtied bunny logo, ruling that California was the wrong venue for the suit.

The judge, reputed among clerks and externs to be something of a prankster, has occasionally taken pleasure in mocking the L.A.-ness of his case docket. In one case, Otero embedded numerous references to the song “Like A Virgin” in an order involving a trademark lawsuit against Madonna.

“Like a virgin touched for the very first time, the Ninth Circuit has not examined what impact MedImmune has had on its precedent in Chesebrough-Pond’s,” the order read. “Defendant's fear should be fading fast because the court now grants defendant's motion to dismiss... She has made it through the wilderness because an actual controversy does not exist.”

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Daniels’ attorney originally decried the request to move the case into federal court as a “bullying tactic,” tweeting that Cohen and Trump were attempting to do so  “in order to increase their chances that the matter will be decided in private arbitration, thus hiding the truth from the public.”

The contract signed between Daniels and Cohen—but, crucially, not by Trump—includes an arbitration agreement, a clause stipulating that any conflicts about the nondisclosure agreement be settled outside of court—and therefore outside of the public eye.

“Any and all claims or controversies,” the agreement reads, “shall be resolved by binding confidential Arbitration to the greatest extent permitted by law.”

Federal court judges like Otero tend to respect arbitration agreements more strictly than California superior courts.

Michael J. Avenatti, Daniels’ attorney, argues in the suit that without Trump’s signature on the agreement, the nondisclosure agreement is null and void. “Because there was never a valid agreement and thus, no agreement to arbitrate,” the lawsuit concludes, “any subsequent order obtained by Mr. Cohen and/or Mr. Trump in arbitration is of no consequence or effect.”

Avenatti further argues that Cohen’s public statements have themselves abrogated any agreement, further freeing Daniels to discuss the alleged affair.

Despite the suit’s removal to federal court, Avenatti told The Daily Beast that he feels positively towards the selection of Otero as the presiding judge.

“My experiences with Judge Otero have been positive,” Avenatti said. “He is tough, detailed oriented, very smart and well respected among attorneys on both sides of the aisle.”

The president’s attorney did not return a request for comment.