Attorneys who filed a federal lawsuit alleging the 2020 election was fraudulent failed to do their homework, acted in bad faith, did not take notice of well-established legal rules and potentially fueled threats against the lives of election workers with their conspiracy mongering, a federal court in Colorado has concluded.
U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter, who previously dismissed the baseless civil lawsuit against Facebook, Denver-based voting technology company Dominion Voting Systems, and the leaders of various swing states in the presidential election, issued a thorough and strongly-worded order on Tuesday reprimanding the two lawyers who masterminded the case.
"This lawsuit was filed with a woeful lack of investigation into the law and (under the circumstances) the facts," Neureiter wrote. "The lawsuit put into or repeated into the public record highly inflammatory and damaging allegations that could have put individuals' safety in danger. Doing so without a valid legal basis or serious independent personal investigation into the facts was the height of recklessness."
Neureiter gave the extraordinary direction to Denver attorney Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker, who practices in Michigan and Colorado, to pay the costs of the entities who had to defend against the lawsuit. He noted the U.S. Supreme Court has justified the imposition of sanctions on parties who put forth baseless filings that burden courts "with needless expense and delay."
In April, Neureiter dismissed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of all registered voters, determining there was no claim of a concrete, individual injury and, therefore, no legal standing. The lawsuit included statements like that of Neil Yarbrough of Aurora, who offered no firsthand knowledge of malfeasance, and instead told the court that "if we don't fix this, there may not be any more elections."
Fielder and Walker sought $1,000 in damages per registered American voter, or $160 billion total. That was "greater than the annual GDP of Hungary," Neureiter pointed out in his Aug. 3 order.
The attorneys reportedly raised $95,000 from the public to fund the lawsuit, and their home page still displays a request seeking donations. The graphic reads "Are you a registered voter? ... You may qualify to join the Dominion Class Action."
Stan Garnett, the attorney representing Dominion, said that although Fielder and Walker have appealed the dismissal, he believed the online solicitation was misleading, given Neureiter's findings about the class-action lawsuit's lack of viability.
"Under Colorado law, one has the right to solicit, to get contributions to pursue a lawsuit," he said. "But certainly my view is someone should tell the truth about the lawsuit."
Despite the financial backing, the court pointed out that the lawsuit in Colorado was a "cut-and-paste" from other election challenges, and that Fielder and Walker reportedly had not verified any of the election fraud allegations with an expert prior to filing the lawsuit.
"This court ruling imposing sanctions on lawyers filing bogus post-election claim is important because of the court's detailed factual findings and explanation that the 2020 election was not rigged and Trump fraud claims have been rejected on the merits," Richard L. Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California, Irvine, wrote on Twitter.
Neither Fielder nor Walker responded to a request for comment. Fielder's disciplinary record in Colorado includes a two-year probation that began in December 2019, following a violation of rules of professional conduct pertaining to client billing practices. As part of his probation, Fielder had to complete an ethics course.
In addition to his lengthy summary of the lawyers' pursuit of a clearly frivolous case, Neureiter's order served to condemn former President Donald Trump's denial of his own loss, drawing a direct line between various lawsuits alleging fraud in the 2020 election and deadly the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"Post-election, the former President and his supporters' claims of the vote being 'stolen' or 'rigged' resulted in, among other things, serious threats to the safety of both public election officials and private employees of Dominion," Neureiter wrote. Trump's behavior "also raised a substantial doubt about the continuation of what arguably is the United States' greatest political tradition — the unbroken two-century ritual of the peaceful transfer of power."
The allegations of fraud, if believed by a wide enough swath of the public, "are the stuff of which violent insurrections are made," the magistrate judge warned.
"It is the most strongly worded, specific, direct and thorough order I have seen in civil election litigation," said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute & Coalition and a member of the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service. She added that she was grateful a court was "holding some of these individuals accountable for the destructive nature of the coordinated post-election attempt to overthrow our democracy."
The latest development out of Colorado mirrors the fate of similar lawsuits challenging the validity of the general election in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, where judges have thrown out claims of vote rigging.
"Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here," wrote Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump nominee and member of the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in November.
Republican-led states have responded to Trump's loss by passing or attempting to enact changes to voting measures, and Arizona's state Senate has commissioned an ostensible audit of votes in Maricopa County. This week, the Republican chair of the county's board of supervisors rebuked the Senate in a letter, writing, "If you haven't figured out that the election in Maricopa County was free, fair and accurate yet, I'm not sure you ever will."
Fielder and Walker had also sought to sue the governors and top election officials for Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin — all of which were swing states that President Joe Biden won. Neureiter was baffled at this move, given that the administration of those states' elections was not directed toward Colorado.
The Colorado Bar Association declined to comment on whether professional sanctions against the attorneys were also warranted.
The case is O'Rourke et al. v. Dominion Voting Systems, et al.
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