William H. Pauley III, Judge in Trump Hush Money Case, Dies at 68

He sentenced Michael D. Cohen to three years in prison for breaking campaign finance laws by helping to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Donald J. Trump.

Credit…Ken Sawchuk/Newsday RM, via Getty Images

Judge William H. Pauley III, the Manhattan federal judge who sentenced Michael D. Cohen, Donald J. Trump’s lawyer, to three years in prison for paying hush money in sex scandals that could have threatened Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016, died on July 6 at his home in East Quogue, N.Y. He was 68.

The cause was bile duct cancer, his son William said.

Judge Pauley, who was named to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, presided over several prominent cases in his career on the bench.

He decided, in a civil liberties lawsuit in 2013, that the Patriot Act empowered the National Security Agency to collect metadata in bulk on virtually every phone call made in the United States — an opinion that was overturned by an appeals court in 2015. Two years after that Congress limited that program with the passage of the USA Freedom Act.

In 2018, he rejected a settlement that New York City had reached with federal officials to rectify conditions in the city’s public housing projects and settle lawsuits. He called the settlement insufficient and “not fair, reasonable or consistent with the public interest.” The agreement was renegotiated to give Washington more say, but it avoided what would have been a politically embarrassing federal takeover of the city’s Housing Authority.

The sentencing of Mr. Cohen in 2018 followed his guilty pleas in two separate cases. One was brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, the other by the office of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Cohen was accused of helping to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump by paying the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000, which the government considered an illegal campaign contribution, and orchestrating a $150,000 payment by American Media, the parent company of The National Enquirer, to a former Playboy playmate, Karen McDougal, which prosecutors labeled an illegal corporate donation.

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Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Mr. Cohen said his blind loyalty to Mr. Trump prompted him to ignore “my own inner voice” because “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

But the judge said that Mr. Cohen’s cooperation with prosecutors did not “wipe the slate clean,” and that by breaking campaign finance laws, evading taxes and lying to Congress, he was guilty of a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.” He added, “Each of the crimes involved deception and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition.”

Those crimes represent “a far more insidious harm to our democratic institutions,” the judge said. “Somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass.”

Mr. Cohen was ordered to pay nearly $2 million in fines, forfeitures and restitution. In 2020, he was among the federal inmates released early to home confinement because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Judge Eleni M. Roumel of the United States Court of Federal Claims, who had been Judge Pauley’s law clerk, recalled his “admiration of well-prepared lawyers and vocal dislike of the uncivil or unprepared,” and described him as “a skilled, principled jurist.” “What really distinguished him was his innate sense of fairness,” Judge Roumel said by email. “It is evident in his opinions and in the way he treated lawyers and litigants. He developed a well-earned reputation for being serious on the bench and for making sure that every person, regardless of background, was heard in his courtroom.”

William Henry Pauley III was born on Aug. 14, 1952, in Glen Cove, N.Y., to William Henry Pauley Jr., a supervisor at the Long Island Lighting Company, and Mildred (Phillips) Pauley, a homemaker.

After graduating from Glen Cove High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1974 from Duke University, where he also received a law degree in 1977. He worked as a deputy attorney for Nassau County and was then in private practice. From 1984 to 1998, as an enrolled Republican, he was also assistant counsel to the minority leader of the New York State Assembly.

He was nominated to the District Court in 1998 and served for two decades before assuming senior status in 2018. He had been chairman of the court’s security committee and was on its Covid-19 response team.

In addition to his son William, he is survived by his wife, Kimberly (Frank) Pauley; two other sons, Kendall and Adam; and a brother, Arthur.