A federal judge considering whether to order sanctions against some of former President Donald Trump’s lawyers spent hours Monday drilling deeply into details about an unsuccessful lawsuit that challenged Michigan’s 2020 election results.
The lawsuit alleging widespread fraud was dropped after the judge found nothing but “speculation and conjecture” that votes for Trump somehow were destroyed or switched to votes for Joe Biden, who won Michigan by 2.8 percentage points.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the city of Detroit now want a raft of attorneys, including Trump allies Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, to face the consequences. It’s one of the few efforts to wrench fines or other penalties from post-election lawsuits across the U.S.
At its peak, Monday’s court hearing attracted more than 13,000 people watching the live video.
U.S. District Judge Linda Parker repeatedly asked what lawyers did to assure themselves that allegations from Trump voters about fraud appeared legitimate. No one raised a hand in many instances. At other times, they said affidavits from people in counting centers simply were intended to reinforce reports by their election experts.
“If you have not asked the minimal questions, I find that problematic,” Parker said of the affidavits. “I’m trying to determine the level of inquiry.”
David Fink, an attorney for Detroit, a Democratic city where Trump’s allies had alleged election irregularities, said there was no “due diligence” by lawyers.
“They had a duty to investigate,” Fink said. “Unfortunately this kind of case is going to make people around the world believe that lawyers can say or do whatever they want and it doesn’t have to be true, they don’t have to inquire.”
Judges have found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Indeed, election officials from both political parties have stated publicly that the election went well, and international observers confirmed there were no serious irregularities.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six Republican voters who wanted Parker to decertify Michigan’s results and impound voting machines. The judge declined in December, calling the request “stunning in its scope and breathtaking in its reach.”
Powell, based in Dallas, said little until the last two minutes of the hourslong hearing Monday. She took “full responsibility” for the lawsuit and compared the legal fight to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in schools.
“It is the duty of lawyers and the highest tradition of the practice of law to raise difficult and even unpopular issues,” Powell said. “The fact that there may have been even adverse precedent against us does not change that fact.”
The sanctions hearing, she added, “is one of the proceedings that leaves the American public with no confidence either in our election system or in our judicial system.”
Wood’s name was on the lawsuit, but he insisted he had no role other than to tell Powell that he would be available if she needed a seasoned litigator.
Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat, want the state to receive at least $11,000 in legal fees. Detroit is asking the judge to disgorge any money that lawyers have collected through a post-election fundraising campaign. The city also wants lawyers to face disciplinary hearings in their respective states.
“I reject the mantra that we did this as a publicity stunt. We did not,” Howard Kleinhendler, another architect of the lawsuit, told the judge.
Don Campbell, an attorney representing the lawyers, said sanctions would be inappropriate.
“The fact is that folks doubted this election. It happens,” Campbell said. “Folks doubted the 2000 election, Bush versus Gore, and I grew up as many of us did hearing the rumors that were more than doubts about the 1960 election. … This case was driven by doubts arising from the eyewitness accounts and the statistical evidence.”
The judge asked for more briefs and didn’t indicate when she would make a decision on possible penalties.
In New York, Rudy Giuliani has been suspended from practicing law because he made false statements while trying to get courts to overturn Trump’s election loss.