As lawyers keep pushing Trump election challenges, calls for sanctions mount
Some legal experts say attorneys have crossed the line with unsupported claims.
As President Donald Trump and his allies continue their legal barrage in an effort to overturn the presidential election despite a succession of adverse rulings, some state and local election officials are starting to cry foul.
In Michigan Thursday, Republican lawyers were back in court seeking an audit of election results in the heavily-Democratic county that is home to Detroit -- even after the state's Supreme Court had already rejected an earlier request from the same group to halt certification. An exasperated lawyer for the city pleaded with the judge to do something.
"They are trying to use this court in a very, very improper way," said Detroit city attorney David Fink. "We ask this court not just to deny the relief that is requested but to grant significant sanctions, because this has to stop."
The attorney for the Trump poll observers shot back: "I didn't realize I was such a threat to our republic by simply asking that this court to enforce our constitutional right."
The Michigan case is not isolated, and opponents say they are starting to see the relentless effort as abusive. In just the past week, at least five new cases were filed on the president's behalf. Between the Trump campaign and the president's allies, there have now been at least 46 lawsuits filed challenging the 2020 presidential contest -- many employing the same recycled fraud claims and witness affidavits.
And if more cases land on court dockets with glaring errors or what judges have described as anemic evidence, legal experts told ABC News that even some slow-to-boil judges may see no choice but to impose sanctions.
"You could see a court saying, 'Enough is enough,'" said Daniel I. Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Election Reform Program at New York University.
A 'post-truth environment'
Whether and when the blizzard of lawsuits may cross a line and be deemed abusive by a court is nearly impossible to predict, a number of legal experts told ABC News, but some say it now seems possible. New York University Law Professor Stephen Gillers, an expert on ethics rules, said there is a point at which a plaintiff could face reprimand, especially if cases are repeatedly being dismissed as unsupported by facts -- as has occurred repeatedly in Trump's case.
"Judges have inherent power to impose monetary sanctions on lawyers who abuse the court system by making claims to which they have no reasonable factual or legal basis," Gillers said. "Is it frequently done? No. Is it unheard of? No."
Charles Gardner Geyh, a law professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said he found it distressing to see the president "export this post-truth environment" to the courtroom. But he has doubts that courts will go so far as to sanction lawyers bringing election challenges, no matter how thin the evidence.
Judges "don't want to be perceived as openly political," Geyh said. "If they come down on lawyers who represent the president like a ton of bricks, they are aware of how that will be perceived."
The one possible exception to that, Geyh said, involves Sidney Powell, the increasingly incendiary attorney whom the president jettisoned from his legal team 13 days ago. Powell has filed a succession of unfounded conspiracy-laced lawsuits challenging the election's outcome that have distressed even some of Trump's longtime allies. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a confidante of the president, called the far-fetched legal claims "a national embarrassment."
Geyh said Powell's cases -- which allege a global plot to rig the election involving foreign oligarchs, Venezuelan dictators, and a Colorado-based voting machine company -- are "oddly extreme."
"I think that some of this will result in discipline," he said.
While judges have leeway to sanction attorneys during court proceedings, Weiner said the job of policing the conduct of lawyers more typically falls to state bar associations. If attorneys are engaging in "truly reckless or malicious conduct, you can be violating bar rules," he said.
On Nov. 20, Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, filed bar complaints in five states against nearly two dozen lawyers that have been working on President Trump's legal effort to challenge the election. In his complaint letter, he alleged the attorneys engaged in "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation."
Several legal experts said Powell may be uniquely vulnerable to sanction because of the number of errors in her filings -- some of them egregious. Some of the most troubling, they said, surfaced in an election challenge she brought in federal court in Wisconsin earlier this week.
In the case, Powell asked a Wisconsin judge to order the release of 48 hours of security camera footage from the TCF Center -- but the facility is actually in Michigan.
In another apparent gaffe, one of the plaintiffs Powell named -- unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden -- said the case was filed on his behalf without his knowledge or approval.
"I am not a fan of people using my name without my permission," Van Orden told ABC News after he found out about the suit via social media. "Can you even do that?"
Asked about the error, Powell told ABC News. "I'm informed by counsel who had spoken to him that there was apparently a miscommunication." Van Orden’s name has since been removed from the case, and he told ABC News that he has no intention of pursuing legal action against Powell.
"If I were her lawyer, what I would say is cut it out," said Gillers, the NYU expert. "Just stop it, because you're on the road to disbarment."
Trump's legal team has maintained in speeches, in interviews and on social media that they have compelling evidence of fraud to buttress their legal effort. But when pushed to present it in court, they have been unable to deliver. For this, the president has blamed the courts themselves.
"All we need is to have some judge listen to it properly without having a political opinion or having another kind of problem," Trump said last week.
Judges have seen it differently. U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann, a Republican, wrote that Trump's legal filings presented only "speculative accusations." A Trump appointee to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Stephanos Bibas, was even less charitable, admonishing that "calling an election unfair does not make it so."
"Charges require specific allegations and then proof," Bibas said in rejecting a Trump suit. "We have neither here."
ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report.
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