Aside from the fate of Mr. Menendez, the outcome of the trial could also have implications on how the government defines relationships between donors and politicians.
“This is a serious case,” Judge William H. Walls, who will preside over the trial, repeatedly reminded potential jurors during the selection process. “It’s not a junky jeopardy matter that you see on TV in these supposed judge cases. This is real stuff.”
Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday, but legal sparring began picking up last week, as Mr. Menendez’s team took exception to a pretrial brief from prosecutors, which summarized the indictment and laid out the government’s legal arguments.
“The first 16 pages of this ‘brief’ seem designed solely to generate adverse pretrial publicity for the defendants, giving the media a rhetorically florid preview of the prosecutors’ opening argument,” wrote Raymond M. Brown, one of Mr. Menendez’s lawyers, in a response.
The retort from the defense was a reminder of what is at stake for Mr. Menendez: Not only must his team win over the jury that will hear the criminal case, but the senator must preserve his standing with voters, who will decide next year whether to re-elect him.
Mr. Menendez, 63, lives in Paramus, in suburban Bergen County, but his political roots are deep in the heavily immigrant urban communities of Hudson, Essex and Union Counties. His career was a methodical climb up the rungs of New Jersey politics, beginning as a mayor, a state legislator, a Congressman and, since 2005, a U.S. senator.
The trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks, hinges not necessarily on the concrete evidence that the government has collected, but rather on subjective questions about intent, friendship and “official acts.”
Indeed, the defense for Mr. Menendez is unlikely to dispute some of the facts; that Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, bestowed on the senator lavish gifts of private flights, luxury accommodations and free vacations – all which Mr. Menendez initially failed to disclose — and he made more than $700,000 in direct and indirect political contributions to Mr. Menendez.