In one of the most bizarre and far-flung federal lawsuits in a post-election cycle full of them, Colorado lawyers blamed Donald Trump’s electoral defeat on a hodgepodge of right-wing Internet boogeyman.
The spaghetti-against-the-wall legal offensive alleged collusion between Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan, Dominion Voting Machines and bipartisan public officials in four separate states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia—in a complaint demanding $160 billion and broad injunctive relief.
The sought-after award would have been larger than the gross domestic product of Hungary—and would have potentially thrown a wrench in the gears of U.S. democracy.
Sanctioning the lawyers behind it in a ruling docketed Wednesday, a furious federal judge summarized: “The Complaint is one enormous conspiracy theory.”
That is one of the kinder lines in a brutal, 68-page beatdown of a ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter, who took turns dressing down the lawyers behind the suit for what he depicted as a dishonest, careless, and mindless amplification of the type of rhetoric he tied the Jan. 6th assault of the U.S. Capitol.
“An ‘Empty-Head’ But ‘Pure-Heart’ Is No Justification”
Judge Neureiter took little stock in Colorado attorney Gary Fielder’s claims that the legal blitz was not sanctionable because the lawyers really believed their claims.
“An ’empty-head’ but ‘pure-heart’ is no justification for patently frivolous arguments or factual assertions,” the ruling says.
Finding the lawsuit was filed in “bad faith,” Neureiter emphasized that it amplified a message he linked to a disastrous result: the interruption of the previously unbroken legacy of the peaceful transfer of power in the United States.
“Horrifyingly, that two-century tradition arguably came to an end on January 6, 2021, when the United States Capitol was stormed during a violent attack against the United States Congress, with a mob attempting to overturn President Trump’s defeat by disrupting the joint session of Congress assembled to formalize Joe Biden’s victory,” Neureiter wrote. “The Capitol complex was locked down and lawmakers and staff were evacuated while rioters occupied and vandalized the building for several hours. People died.”
Filed weeks before that siege on Dec. 22, the purported class action named eight U.S. citizens as plaintiffs suing Dominion, Facebook, Zuckerberg, Chan, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), ex-Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar (D), Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), and others.
The lawsuit tried to rope in the disparate figures, each sued in their individual capacity, into an all-encompassing conspiracy somehow falling under the jurisdiction of the District of Colorado.
“An Affront to the Truth”
Citing the Time Magazine article “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election,” the lawyers flipped the thesis of the headline on its head.
“I question whether Plaintiffs’ counsel actually read or bothered to try to understand the TIME article,” Neureiter wrote. “Rather than some nefarious plot, the Secret History article describes in detail a valiant effort by both left and right-wing groups, labor organizations, businesses, and non-profit organizations to come together both before and after the election ‘to keep the peace and oppose [President] Trump’s assault on democracy.'”
Through the prism of the lawsuit, this effort amounted to a racketeering conspiracy.
“For Plaintiffs’ counsel to hold up this article as supporting the existence of an illegal RICO conspiracy to rig the election is an affront to the truth and an attempt to mislead the Court,” the ruling states.
Oral arguments over sanctions in this case fell shortly after a similar hearing in the so-called “Kraken” litigation in Michigan.
Fielder insisted the efforts were not connected.
“Indeed, at oral argument Mr. Fielder was quick to say that he did not know Sidney Powell and had never spoken to her or attorney L. Lin Wood,” the magistrate wrote, referring to the conspiracy theorist lawyers facing possible sanctions in Michigan.
In the Michigan case, the city of Detroit has requested disbarment referrals for Powell, Wood and seven other counsel said to be associated with the litigation. The ruling remains pending.
Among Neureiter’s findings was one saying that the lawyers “improperly included in a federal complaint highly disputed and inflammatory statements by the former President stating categorically that ‘DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE’ without doing anything to independently verify the truth of that statement.” In addition, the judge said the lawyers “knew or should have known [their case] was doomed to failure from the very beginning.”
Judge Neureiter only has ordered the Colorado lawyers to pay “reasonable” attorneys’ fees to their adversaries.
“For the foregoing reasons, it is HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ counsel shall jointly and severally pay the moving Defendants’ reasonable attorneys for (1) having to prepare and argue the motions to dismiss, and (2) having to prepare and argue the oppositions to the Motion for Leave to Amend.” the ruling said. “To justify an award of attorneys’ fees and expenses, the party seeking such an award normally must provide the Court with time and expense records, specifying for each attorney who performed work on the matter, the date, hours expended and the nature of the work performed. Fees and expenses must be both necessary and reasonable.”
“While Plaintiffs’ counsel may well choose to appeal this sanction decision (as is their absolute right), it would be in all Parties’ interest to reach an agreement as to the reasonable figure for each moving Defendant,” the judge concluded.
Fielder did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Read the ruling below:
(Photo of Zuckerberg via PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
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