This is not what you want to read when you’re on the pointy end of a sanctions order:
This case should never have been brought. Its inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. Intended for a political purpose, none of the counts of the amended complaint stated a cognizable legal claim.
And it did not get better from there for Donald Trump and his sparklemagic lawyer Alina Habba who filed this fundraising ploy/grievance string board packaged as a RICO lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and half of DC. The theory of their case was that Clinton and her allies conspired with various government figures, including Comey and Trump’s own Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to gin up the Russia investigation and ruin Trump’s life. It was filed in Florida because, among other reasons, the defendants “knew that Florida is a state in the United States which was an important one.”
“Thirty-one individuals and entities were needlessly harmed in order to dishonestly advance a political narrative,” US District Judge Donald Middlebrooks went on, noting later that “the implausible claim that Mr. Comey conspired with Ms. Clinton, given the impact of his announcements on her 2016 campaign, not only lacks substance but is categorically absurd.”
The court restates some of the logic behind its September order dismissing the case, observing that “It was not that the Complaint and Amended Complaint were inadequate in any respect, they were inadequate in nearly every respect, even after the deficiencies had been identified in the multiple motions to dismiss.”
Trump’s lawyers should have known before they filed that the case “recklessly advanced claims foreclosed by existing precedent that the most basic legal research would have revealed.” But if they didn’t, they certainly got notice of the defects when the plaintiffs filed motions to dismiss the first complaint and the amended version, which the court described as adding “eighty new pages of largely irrelevant allegations that did nothing to salvage the legal sufficiency of his claims” as part of a “deliberate attempt to harass; to tell a story without regard to facts.”
“The problems in the Complaint were obvious from the start,” Judge Middlebrooks writes. “They were identified by the Defendants not once but twice, and Mr. Trump persisted anyway.”
And the reason he persisted is that Trump’s lawsuits are not really lawsuits at all, in the sense that they don’t function to vindicate any legally cognizable injury.
“The Complaint and Amended Complaint were drafted to advance a political narrative; not to address legal harm caused by any Defendant,” the court writes, adding later that “this case is part of Mr. Trump’s pattern of misusing the courts to serve political purposes.”
The court then details garbage litigation which has functioned as a major PR and fundraising tool for the former president — not mention the principal subject of this column — since he unwillingly left the White House two years ago. It notes Trump’s idiotic state suit against the Pulitzer Prize board; his even more idiotic state suit against New York Attorney General Letitia James, in her “personal capacity,” which was removed from state court and landed on Judge Middlebrooks’s docket; his federal lawsuit to block the AG investigating him under the aegis of the New York state courts; his suits against the tech companies for tortiously deplatforming him after he incited a coup; and his multiple defamation suits against CNN.
It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses — and he always loses. The point is to send out a million screaming emails soliciting donations to support the litigation and to feed a news cycle in which the former president is taking the fight to his enemies. Indeed, Habba appears to spend much of her time doing cable news hits to talk smack about Trump’s various court cases and the judges presiding over them.
“President Trump is just not going to take it anymore,” Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba told Fox’s Sean Hannity the day after the Clinton RICO suit was filed. “If you are going to make up lies, if you are going to try to take him down, he is going to fight you back. And that is what this is, this is the beginning of all that.”
“This is purposeful conduct, some of which occurs beyond the pleadings and even outside of the courtroom,” Judge Middlebrooks wrote, describing a “playbook” which includes “Provocative and boastful rhetoric; A political narrative carried over from rallies; Attacks on political opponents and the news media; Disregard for legal principles and precedent; and Fundraising and payments to lawyers from political action committees.”
It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, as the court observes, with Habba getting paid by the Trump PACs to file abusive lawsuits, which the PACs then use to fundraise, and pay her to file more abusive lawsuits, which she goes on television to talk about, so the viewers will send in more money to fund more lawsuits, and on and on forever. And if these junk lawsuits erode the public’s faith in civic norms and an independent judiciary, further fracturing a deeply divided American body politic, so much the better!
“Frivolous lawsuits should not be used as a vehicle for fundraising or fodder for rallies or social media. Mr. Trump is using the courts as a stage set for political theater and grievance. This behavior interferes with the ability of the judiciary to perform its constitutional duty,” Judge Middlebrooks writes.
“Mr. Trump is a prolific and sophisticated litigant who is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries. He is the mastermind of strategic abuse of the judicial process, and he cannot be seen as a litigant blindly following the advice of a lawyer. He knew full well the impact of his actions,” he continues. “As such, I find that sanctions should be imposed upon Mr. Trump and his lead counsel, Ms. Habba.”
And so the court made Trump, Habba, and Habba’s firm Habba Madaio & Associates jointly and severally liable for a million dollars in attorneys fees between last night’s order and a previous Rule 11 sanctions award. The many pages of judicial side eye at Trump’s half-assed efforts to contest the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees are also hilarious.
These errors, taken as a whole, render the entire document unreliable. I considered whether to offer Plaintiff yet another opportunity to cure his objections. Without a motion, however, I did not find it to be a fair exercise of this Court’s discretion. In almost every area of law, a party waives an objection for failing to properly raise it. So too here. Thus, to the extent that Plaintiff’s objections were not clearly identifiable, I did not consider them.
But the substantial penalty, as well as the bruising opinion itself, will not undo the injury to the plaintiffs, who were dragged into court in Florida, not to say harm to the legal profession itself. There is a social cost to aiming a firehose of frivolous, bad faith complaints at the federal judiciary, and, as the court laments, “Rule 11, 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and the Defend Trade Secrets Act are not ‘up to the task’ of confronting the litigation abuse involved here. But apparently the sanctions have already functioned as a deterrent to future abusive litigation.
This morning, Trump’s lawyers voluntarily dismissed the suit against AG James, apparently unwilling to risk continuing before a jurist who’d already urged them in no uncertain terms to “reconsider their opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss” because “this litigation has all the telltale signs of being both vexatious and frivolous.”
Well … it’s a start.
Trump v. Clinton [Docket via Court Listener]
Liz Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.