Legal experts welcome sanctions of pro-Trump lawyers, say more needed

Attorneys behind some of the dubious litigation over former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE’s 2020 election loss were sanctioned this week by a federal judge in a move that was welcomed by legal ethics experts.

More disciplinary steps are needed to deter efforts to undermine future U.S. elections, said experts who spoke to The Hill, adding that the system for holding pro-Trump election lawyers to account was working as it should.

"The wheels of ethical accountability grind slowly but deliberately," said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. "Within the span of 10 months, we have seen both state bars and the courts take action against those lawyers who took their propagation of Trump’s conspiratorial fantasies out of the cable news studio and into the courtroom.”

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Following President BidenJoe BidenFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push Protesters demonstrate outside Manchin's houseboat over opposition to reconciliation package Alabama eyes using pandemic relief funds on prison system MORE’s win at the ballot box, pro-Trump attorneys filed dozens of lawsuits based on unfounded claims contesting the election’s legitimacy. The litigation persisted even after the attorneys collectively racked up an abysmal record in court, winning only a single minor case while losing some 60 others.

Although some Trump-allied attorneys characterized their actions as hard-fought advocacy, critics say they crossed an ethical red line by deploying politically motivated disinformation to advance Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen from him.

Concerns about holding pro-Trump lawyers accountable for baseless election litigation have grown more pressing in light of fears that the 2024 presidential election could see even more sophisticated efforts to use the courts to subvert the results. Several legal ethics experts said appropriate punishment should include years-long suspension from legal practice and even disbarment.

“Lawyers who file baseless lawsuits for propaganda purposes are engaging in fraud on the public and harming our democratic institutions,” said Barbara McQuade, a federal prosecutor during the Obama administration who is now a law professor at the University of Michigan. “For that reason, strong sanctions are needed to deter lawyers from enabling the weaponization of false information.”

A fresh round of punishment came this week when a federal judge in Michigan sanctioned nine pro-Trump attorneys, saying their lawsuit over the former president’s 2020 election defeat amounted to a "historic and profound abuse of the judicial process."

"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," wrote Judge Linda Parker, an Obama appointee to the federal district court in Detroit.

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The sanctions were levied against some of the higher-profile Trump-allied lawyers, including Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, whom Parker ordered to pay the legal fees of their opposing parties and referred to state bar authorities for further discipline.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Tracking the Earth's 'ultimate record of change' Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll Michigan developing electrified road to wirelessly charge EVs, Whitmer says MORE (D), one of the defendants in the case who asked the court to impose disciplinary action, praised the outcome on Wednesday.

“While the mob on January 6th physically assaulted our democracy, Sidney Powell and other lawyers continued to do so in our courts,” Whitmer said in a statement. “They launched dozens of lawsuits, exploiting the legal system to undermine a free and fair election. The courts rejected all of them.”

“Today’s ruling sends a clear message: Those who seek to overturn an American election and poison the well of American democracy will face consequences,” she added.

Biden defeated Trump in Michigan by around 154,000 votes, or 2.7 percentage points.

Legal ethics experts who spoke to The Hill pointed to Parker’s ruling as a model for others tasked with meting out discipline.

"I think Judge Parker got it exactly right in Michigan," Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, said. "She carefully reviewed the allegations and explained why each one lacked factual support or legal merit."

Another Trump attorney to come under disciplinary action for pushing 2020 election lies was Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThree Democrats call for investigation into Sidney Powell to move 'swiftly' Fox News bans Rudy Giuliani from appearing: report Alabama official dismisses Lindell claim that 100K votes were flipped from Trump to Biden: 'It's not possible' MORE, whose law licenses in New York and Washington, D.C., have been suspended as a result.

Powell and Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment. Wood referred The Hill to his Michigan-based attorney, Paul Stablein, who did not provide a comment.

Additionally, Powell and Giuliani are among the defendants named in defamation lawsuits filed by the voting machine companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic based on their claims made outside court.

Dominion, in its January complaint, alleged that Powell promoted “a false preconceived narrative” about the 2020 vote, which included unsubstantiated claims that the company was established in Venezuela as part of a vote-rigging operation in favor of the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez. The suit also noted that Powell claimed Dominion bribed state officials in Georgia to secure its contract.

Dominion’s lawsuit against Giuliani alleges that the former New York City mayor falsely accused the company of fixing the 2020 presidential election by manipulating votes even after independent audits and hand recounts disproved his claims.

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Earlier this month, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., rejected requests from Powell, Giuliani and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell to dismiss the lawsuits from Dominion, each of which seeks $1.3 billion from the defendants.

Not every Trump-allied attorney who is alleged to have tried to overturn the 2020 election has faced repercussions. One lawyer whose behind-the-scenes role is still coming into full view is that of Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who served as an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department during the Trump administration.

Clark reportedly plotted with Trump to overturn the election results in key states. Recently revealed emails show that Clark in late December tried to get top Justice Department officials to sign off on a plan to assist Republican-held state legislatures with nullifying Biden’s win in favor of Trump.

Multiple attempts to reach Clark through his employer by phone and email were not successful.

Rather than face discipline, Clark has since landed a position with a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., called the New Civil Liberties Alliance. 

"Lawyers whose roles were more advisory than based in litigation have largely emerged unscathed," said Moss, a partner in the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid. But he added that additional damaging information could come to light as a result of several ongoing probes.

For now, though, experts are generally optimistic that accountability will prevail.

“It's too soon to say if they've yet been held fully accountable,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. “The courts work slowly. But I do think the momentum for serious financial and professional consequences is all against them and accelerating.”