Truth has taken a beating during the past few years, from former President Donald Trump’s claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration to his statements that Covid-19 was a hoax. But on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Linda V. Parker, in Detroit, took a strong stand in its defense when she issued an order imposing sanctions against lawyers aligned with former President Donald Trump for what she called “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.”
The lawyers sought a preliminary injunction to decertify the election results and to certify Trump as the winner instead.
Shortly after the November election, attorneys Sidney Powell, Lin Wood and others filed a lawsuit on behalf of Michigan voters against state officials alleging a scheme to “illegally manipulate the vote count” in favor of President Joe Biden, who won the election in Michigan by around 150,000 votes.
The lawyers sought a preliminary injunction to decertify the election results and to certify Trump as the winner instead. In December, Judge Parker denied the injunction request, finding that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits, and noting that the claims were based on nothing more than “theories, conjecture and speculation.”
In July, Parker held a roughly six-hour hearing, in which Trump’s lawyers had few answers to her questions about the absence of a factual basis for their allegations. In a 110-page opinion, Parker took the rare step of punishing the lawyers for their abuse of the court system. Finding that the lawsuit had been filed “in bad faith and for an improper purpose,” she ordered the lawyers to pay the legal fees incurred by taxpayers of the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit.
She also ordered the lawyers to complete 12 of hours of legal education on pleading standards and election law. And she directed the clerk to send her opinion to the disciplinary authorities in the jurisdictions where each lawyer is licensed to consider suspension or disbarment.
Parker cited the need to deter others from engaging in similar behavior, which she characterized as “deceiving a federal court and the American people into believing that rights were infringed, without regard to whether any laws or rights were in fact violated.”
Lawyers have a legal and ethical duty to avoid filing lawsuits that are frivolous. But calling this lawsuit frivolous is to understate its harm. The term “frivolous” suggests a lack of legal merit. What happened here was far more sinister.
Calling this lawsuit frivolous is to understate its harm.
These lawyers most certainly were aware they lacked the evidence to win this lawsuit. And yet they filed it anyway because it advanced an affirmative disinformation campaign designed to convince the public that the election had been stolen. As Parker wrote, “This case was never about fraud—it was about undermining the People’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so.”
Filing a lawsuit without any factual basis sounds a lot like the strategy that a book by two Washington Post reporters said another Trump lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, articulated on election night in November: “Just say we won.”
Trump himself apparently repeated a version of this mantra in a December phone conversation with acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. After Rosen rebuffed Trump’s requests to investigate election fraud, The Washington Post reported, he pressured him to “just say the election was corrupt, and leave the rest to me.” In fact, according to Gordon Sondland, the former ambassador to the European Union, Trump used a similar tactic with the president of Ukraine. In exchange for military aid and a White House meeting, Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not actually have to conduct an investigation of Biden, Sondland testified — he just had to announce one.
Similarly, Powell and her colleagues did not need to win their lawsuits in Michigan and elsewhere; they just needed to file them to give Trump and his allies the talking points they needed to perpetuate the big lie. Parker wrote, “Many people have latched on to this narrative, citing as proof counsel’s submissions in this case.”
In imposing sanctions, Parker called out the lawyers who are willing to kill truth to advance a political agenda. Sanctions, she wrote, were necessary in this case to deter “future frivolous lawsuits designed primarily to spread the narrative that our election processes are rigged and our democratic institutions cannot be trusted.”
Only by exposing disinformation tactics can we begin to recognize them and build resilience to them as an electorate.