She repeatedly told them she was not a “rubber stamp.” She described their plea agreement as potentially “not worth the paper it is printed on.” She made it clear to the lawyers gathered before her that, if anyone had any doubt, she was in charge.
Judge Maryellen Noreika, a 57-year-old former patent and intellectual property litigator, is not an especially high-profile figure in the small legal community in the country’s second-smallest state. Records show she had not worked on criminal cases or presided over a courtroom before President Donald J. Trump nominated her to the federal bench in 2017.
But on Wednesday in Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del., she drew attention from across the country when she made unmistakably clear in her questioning that she was not going to tolerate what she viewed as a weak proposed plea deal between the Justice Department and Hunter Biden, the president’s son. She stunned everyone in the courtroom by refusing to approve a deal that would have settled tax and gun charges against Mr. Biden. Then she sent the lawyers back to the drawing board.
People who know her were not surprised.
Arthur Hellman, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said in an interview that Judge Noreika had been his student in first-year civil procedure, and that he had immediately identified her as a standout. He selected her, he said, as a research assistant to help supervise a group of law students for a large project for the Federal Judicial Center, the education and research agency of the United States federal courts.
“What I saw initially in class was a kind of maturity which would be consistent with a level of self-confidence now that she’s progressed to the level of a federal district judge,” Mr. Hellman said. He added that she never struck him as particularly focused on politics.
“I had absolutely no idea and have no idea today what her political and ideological views were,” he said. “She did a very thorough job of the work that needed to be done.”
Judge Noreika’s judicial record, publications, campaign donations and interviews with those who know her show that she displayed early leadership and a strong work ethic as a law student before a long career as a patent litigator.
Born in Pittsburgh, she graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, got a master’s degree in biology from Columbia University, finished law school in 1993, then moved from associate to partner at the Wilmington firm of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell. Over two decades, she tried more than 30 cases there, mainly patent and intellectual property disputes, before joining the federal bench.
Although she was nominated by Mr. Trump, she was recommended to him by Delaware’s two Democratic senators. Records show that she has contributed to candidates from both political parties, including Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and Hillary Clinton during her 2008 campaign for president. Judge Noreika was registered as a Democrat from 2000 until 2020, when she changed her registration to no party affiliation.
Over the years, her cases occasionally made news.
In 2008, she defended an entertainment company in a dispute over who owned the rights to a comic book heroine.
In 2011, she represented The New York Times Company in a patent dispute against a business called Webvention.
In 2016, The New Jersey Law Journal noted a case in which Judge Noreika filed a complaint against generic drugmakers, claiming the companies had infringed on patents related to a popular drug used to treat irritable bowel syndrome.
In pro bono work, Judge Noreika served as the appointed lawyer in Delaware Family Court for at least seven children, who she said ranged in age from 4 to 16. She wrote in her judicial questionnaire that the cases “involved difficult custody issues, including allegations of sexual and physical abuse, neglect and abandonment.” Judge Noreika estimated that she had spent hundreds of hours on the cases.
In 2017, when two spots opened up on the district court in Delaware, well known for its docket of patent cases, the state’s two Democratic senators, Chris Coons and Thomas R. Carper, put forward Judge Noreika’s name. Mr. Trump accepted both recommendations.
During her nomination hearing in February 2018, Judge Noreika said she admired judges who were “always prepared” and who made people “feel like they’ve been listened to and been given a fair shot.”
She also answered questions posed by Kamala Harris, then a senator, on sentencing defendants in criminal cases.
Ms. Harris pointed out that “district court judges have great discretion when it comes to sentencing defendants” and asked, “What is the process you would follow before you sentenced a defendant?”
Judge Noreika replied that she “would listen to arguments from the parties, including requests for leniency, and consider statements made by victims. If confirmed, I would do my best to impose a sentence that is ‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary’ to achieve the purposes set out by Congress.”
Glenn Thrush and Chris Cameron contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.