DETROIT — A team of lawyers that sought to overturn Michigan’s 2020 election have been ordered to pay the state and the city of Detroit for the cost of defending the lawsuit and complete continuing legal education, U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker ruled Wednesday.
In the high-profile decision, Parker also ordered that a copy of her decision be sent to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission and other state disciplinary boards for the possible suspension or disbarment of the lawyers: Sidney Powell, L. Lin Wood, Emily Newman, Julia Haller, Brandon Johnson, Scott Hagerstrom, Howard Kleinhendler, Gregory Rohl and Stefanie Lynn Junttila.
The lawyers were ordered to complete 12 hours of continuing legal education in pleading standards and election law within six months of Wednesday’s decision.
The suit seeking to overturn the election represented “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process,” the judge wrote, and sought to deceive the federal court and Americans “into believing that rights were infringed, without regard to whether any laws or rights were in fact violated.”
“Individuals may have a right (within certain bounds) to disseminate allegations of fraud unsupported by law or fact in the public sphere,” wrote Parker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama. “But attorneys cannot exploit their privilege and access to the judicial process to do the same. And when an attorney has done so, sanctions are in order.”
Attorneys have an obligation to present “only tenable claims” with due diligence and in good faith, the judge ruled. But the attorneys in the election case presented claims backed by neither evidence nor law, she wrote.
“…Despite the haze of confusion, commotion and chaos counsel intentionally attempted to create by filing this lawsuit, one thing is perfectly clear: Plaintiffs’ attorneys have scorned their oath, flouted the rules and attempted to undermine the integrity of the judiciary along the way,” Parker wrote.
The ruling is the latest development in a nearly nine-month legal battle that began the day before Thanksgiving when six Republicans filed a lawsuit in Michigan’s Eastern District. They argued that Parker should direct the state’s presidential electors to vote for Donald Trump. Democrat Joe Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes — a result that’s been upheld by a series of court decisions, bipartisan boards of canvassers and an investigation by the GOP-controlled Senate Oversight Committee.
The lawsuit relied on a bevy of claims about election software, conspiracy theories and other assertions that had previously been contradicted by experts.
On Dec. 7, 2020, Parker rejected the suit, saying the effort aimed to “ignore the will of millions of voters.” The suit seemed “less about achieving the relief” the GOP plaintiffs sought and “more about the impact of their allegations on people’s faith in the democratic process and their trust in our government,” the judge, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, wrote in her decision.
The defendants in the case launched a push to penalize the attorneys who attempted to overturn Michigan’s election. Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, the city of Detroit and Wayne County voter Robert Davis all asked Parker to impose sanctions. In combination, they asked the judge to take action against nine different attorneys involved in the lawsuit.
The attorneys for Detroit, which intervened in the case, asked the court to refer the Republicans’ counsel for disbarment proceedings, impose monetary sanctions, award legal fees to the city and require the plaintiffs themselves to post a bond before filing a suit in the future.
Detroit, Michigan’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, has been at the center of GOP criticisms of how the 2020 election was administered. David Fink, one of Detroit’s lawyers, has argued that penalties are needed to discourage similar lawsuits in the future. He’s also drawn direct connections between the suit and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“Because of the lies spread in this courtroom, not only did people die on Jan. 6, but many people throughout the world … came to doubt the strength of democratic institutions in this country,” Fink said during a court hearing in July.
On Wednesday, Fink called Parker’s ruling “an incredibly important milestone” and the strongest set of sanctions he’d seen in over 40 years of practice.
“Judge Parker is sending a powerful message to attorneys everywhere: Follow the rules or pay a price,” he said. “This ruling confirms that there are consequences for filing a frivolous lawsuit. The truth matters.”
Nessel said the decision ensured “accountability” for the lawyers who presented “meritless arguments in court.”
“It has remained abundantly clear from the outset that this lawsuit aimed to do nothing more than undermine our democratic process,” Nessel said in a statement. “I appreciated Judge Parker’s thoroughness in the hearing last month, and I appreciate the unmistakable message she sends with this ruling — those who vow to uphold the Constitution must answer for abandoning that oath.”
Powell and other attorneys involved in the effort to overturn Michigan’s election have contended that they had a duty to raise difficult issues on behalf of their clients.
“We have practiced law with the highest standards,” Powell said in July. “We would file the same complaints again. We welcome an opportunity to actually prove our case. No court has ever given us that opportunity.”
In addition to Powell and Wood, sanctions were sought against Kleinhendler of New York, Rohl of Michigan, Hagerstrom of Michigan, Newman of Virginia and Haller of Washington, D.C. All seven of them were listed on the initial lawsuit, filed on Nov. 25.
Two other attorneys, Lambert Junttila of Michigan and Johnson of Washington, D.C., were also involved in other filings on behalf of the Republicans who brought the suit.
Story by Craig Mauger and Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News.