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‘The stuff of which violent insurrections are made:’ Federal judge sanctions Colorado lawyers for 2020 election lawsuit

Attorney Sidney Powell spoke during a news conference about lawsuits contesting the results of the presidential election at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington in November of 2020.
Attorney Sidney Powell spoke during a news conference about lawsuits contesting the results of the presidential election at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington in November of 2020.Sarah Silbiger/For The Washington Post

A federal judge in Colorado has sanctioned two lawyers who filed a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election late last year, finding that the case was ‘’frivolous,’’ ‘’not warranted by existing law,’’ and filed ‘’in bad faith.’’

In a scathing 68-page opinion, Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter found that the lawyers made little effort to corroborate information they had included in the suit, which argued there had been a vast national conspiracy to steal the election from former president Donald Trump.

He particularly called out the duo, Gary Fielder and Ernest John Walker, for quoting Trump in their legal filing, which cited a presidential tweet that claimed without evidence that voting machines manufactured by the company Dominion Voting Systems had ‘’deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide.’’ Neureiter called that allegation ‘’highly disputed and inflammatory’' and said the lawyers made no efforts to verify it.

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The two lawyers filed the case as a class action on behalf of 160 million American voters, alleging a complicated plot engineered by Dominion, Facebook, its founder Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan, and elected officials in four states. They had sought $160 billion in damages.

The case was dismissed in April, but Neureiter ruled that the attorneys had violated their ethical obligations by lodging it in the first place and by peppering their motions with wild allegations that they had made little effort to substantiate. Legal rules prohibit attorneys from clogging the court systems with frivolous motions or from filing information that is not true.

Calling the suit, ‘’one enormous conspiracy theory,’’ Neureiter ordered that the duo must pay the legal fees of all the individuals and companies they had sued — 18 separate entities in all — as a way to deter future similar cases.

Neureiter ordered the defendants’ to compile records showing how much time they had spent on the case and their typical billing rates to determining how much the two lawyers will owe.

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‘’In short, this was no slip-and-fall at the local grocery store,’’ wrote Neureiter, who was appointed as a magistrate judge by other judges. ‘’Albeit disorganized and fantastical, the Complaint’s allegations are extraordinarily serious and, if accepted as true by large numbers of people, are the stuff of which violent insurrections are made.’’

While the lawyers attached affidavits from various people who alleged the election had been rigged — a common tactic of Trump supporters in the dozens of challenges filed in the months after the election — Neureiter said a close examination of the testimony showed it was ‘’notable only in demonstrating no firsthand knowledge by any Plaintiff of any election fraud, misconduct, or malfeasance.’’

Neither Fielder nor Walker immediately responded to an email about the order. During a hearing last month, they argued that they had a good-faith belief that the election was stolen and that they did not trust government officials and others who had affirmed there was no widespread fraud. Fielder told the judge that when they filed their case in December, they saw the potential for violence stemming from discontent over possible fraud and thought their suit offered an alternative path for resolving concerns.

‘’We’re peaceful people. We wanted to come to court and resolve it in a peaceful way,’’ he said. ‘’What happened on January 6 was exactly what we predicted in the complaint.’’

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Wednesday’s order came as the judicial system nationally has been grappling with how to hold accountable the lawyers who filed flimsy challenges to the election.

In June, a panel of judges in New York suspended the law license of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, arguing that Trump’s personal lawyer had ‘’communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements’' that amounted to an ongoing threat to the public. Giuliani’s lawyers have said they are confident his license will be restored after a hearing.

Last month, a federal judge in Michigan spent nearly six hours skeptically questioning a group of nine lawyers, including pro-Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, as she sought to determine whether to sanction them over a lawsuit that sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in that state. A ruling is expected in that matter soon.

Other disciplinary actions are pending before a Wisconsin judge and in front of bar associations in multiple states.