WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Saturday night faced one of his biggest legal setbacks to date in a three-week period defined by repeat court losses, with a federal judge rejecting his effort to stop Pennsylvania from certifying President-elect Joe Biden as the state’s winner.
The Pennsylvania ruling was the latest failed attempt by Trump and his supporters to translate baseless theories of widespread voter fraud into winning legal arguments and pursue an overarching legal strategy that could actually change the results of the election. Trump has yet to meaningfully change vote tallies in any of the states that Biden won by going to court so far.
US District Judge Matthew Brann, who sits in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, painstakingly picked apart the Trump campaign’s lawsuit in his 37-page opinion. He found the campaign’s arguments unclear and hard to thread together, at one point comparing them to “Frankenstein’s Monster.” He wrote that the campaign failed to clear the critical first hurdle of having standing to bring the case at all, and that even if it had done so, it had failed to prove that Pennsylvania election officials unconstitutionally violated voting rights.
Brann wrote that in asking the court to undo millions of legally cast votes, he would expect a plaintiff to “come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption.” However, he continued, “that has not happened.”
“[T]his Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence,” Brann wrote. “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.”
Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, two lawyers leading the Trump campaign’s postelection legal efforts, attempted to spin the loss as a win, saying in a statement that it would help them move more quickly toward getting the US Supreme Court involved. Trump has longed pushed the idea that the Supreme Court will decide the election, but there’s no guarantee the justices would agree to take a case like the one he’s pursuing in Pennsylvania — unlike in 2000, when the court stepped in because the election hinged on one state, Florida, where a specific number of ballots were at issue, Trump would have to flip multiple states to reverse Biden’s victory.
Giuliani and Ellis said the campaign would file for an emergency appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, and then petition the Supreme Court if it lost again. It also tried to undermine Brann’s credibility by noting that he was nominated by former president Barack Obama, but Republican Sen. Pat Toomey released a statement after the ruling that described Brann as a “longtime conservative Republican”; Brann was a compromise nominee by the Obama administration.
Trump, his lawyers, and his Republican supporters have pushed false claims that the election was tainted by widespread and pervasive fraud because many states expanded mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. However, as Giuliani was forced to admit at a hearing last week before Brann, the campaign’s lawsuit in federal court in Pennsylvania didn’t feature a specific claim for fraud.
Instead, the campaign shoehorned fraud theories into claims that Pennsylvania election officials unconstitutionally gave counties a choice in deciding whether to let voters “cure” defective absentee ballots. The campaign’s coplaintiffs were two Pennsylvania voters whose ballots were canceled — one didn’t put his ballot in a special secrecy envelope, and the other didn’t know the reason. They each lived in counties that decided to not give voters a chance to “cure” ballot deficiencies before canceling them, and they argued that it was unfair that Pennsylvanians in other counties, like Philadelphia, had a way to save their votes.
In the original version of the complaint, the campaign also lodged claims that its poll watchers were unconstitutionally denied access to watch ballot counting, but the campaign filed an amended lawsuit that cut those counts after an appeals court decision in another case undercut their legal theory.
Giuliani, who only formally entered an appearance in the case last week after two sets of lawyers had dropped out, attempted to file a third version of the complaint that revived arguments that had been cut, but Brann declined to let him do that. Brann noted that despite only being filed two weeks ago, the case already had a “tortured procedural history.”
The version of the lawsuit that the judge ruled on in Saturday’s opinion featured two counts, down from seven in the original complaint — one alleging that the fact that some counties allowed voters to “cure” deficient absentee ballots and other counties did not violated voters’ equal protection rights under the US Constitution, and one alleging that Pennsylvania election officials ran afoul of the state legislature’s authority to run elections under the Constitution’s Electors and Elections Clauses.
As Brann noted in Saturday’s opinion, the campaign conceded that a recent decision in a different case before the 3rd Circuit made clear that only the state legislature could sue under the Electors and Election Clauses, so the campaign no longer had standing; the campaign said it would leave it in the complaint to appeal that issue later.
That left the equal protection claim. Brann described the Trump campaign’s construction of this claim as being “like Frankenstein’s Monster,” explaining that the campaign had “haphazardly stitched together” different legal theories to try to avoid legal precedent that would undermine it. The sweeping argument that it was unconstitutional for Pennsylvania to let counties decide if they wanted to offer a “notice and cure” process was barred by the 3rd Circuit’s recent decision in another election-related case.
On the other hand, the judge wrote, the campaign had also tried to squeeze in a narrower claim that the two voters serving as individual plaintiffs had standing because they were harmed by the county-by-county approach because their votes were, in fact, canceled. Brann wrote that the campaign had essentially made two separate equal protection claims, not one — but even analyzing the lawsuit that way still couldn’t save it, he concluded, because none of the plaintiffs had standing.
Brann wrote that the problem for the two individual plaintiffs was that Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathleen Boockvar, who they named as the defendant, wasn’t responsible for their votes being canceled. The relief they were asking for from the court — to stop Pennsylvania from certifying the results statewide — also wouldn’t change their situation, the judge wrote.
“Prohibiting certification of the election results would not reinstate the Individual Plaintiffs’ right to vote,” Brann wrote. “It would simply deny more than 6.8 million people their right to vote.”
The Trump campaign’s argument for why it had standing to bring the case was “particularly nebulous,” Brann wrote, explaining that the lawyers hadn’t clearly stated what the campaign’s injury was, so he had to do his own analysis of each of the cases cited by the campaign to “piece together” the theory. The judge found that the campaign’s interests were different from those of voters — knocking down their argument for what’s known as “associational standing” — and that it wasn't claiming that an ineligible candidate was on the ballot — knocking down their argument for what’s known as “competitive standing.”
Brann found that the campaign’s equal protection argument would fail even if it had standing to sue. In looking at whether Pennsylvania had placed a burden on individuals’ right to vote, the judge wrote that the fact that some counties decided to give voters a chance to save their ballots expanded the right to vote — and that did not burden the voting rights of Pennsylvanians who weren’t given that same choice by their county election officials.
The judge found the campaign failed to back up its theory that state election officials somehow specially arranged for Democratic-leaning counties to adopt a “notice and cure” process for absentee ballots. He also found that the campaign failed to support its theory that poll watchers representing Trump were treated differently from observers representing Biden.
Claims that Trump poll observers were denied access to watch ballots being counted in cities and states that Biden won have been a cornerstone of his post-election efforts to undermine Biden’s win. But the campaign has failed to make any real headway in courts across the country with that theory.
Even if Trump’s campaign or the individual voters could prove their case, the judge rejected the idea that the court should then toss out every vote in Pennsylvania.
“Plaintiffs seek to remedy the denial of their votes by invalidating the votes of millions of others. Rather than requesting that their votes be counted, they seek to discredit scores of other votes, but only for one race,” Brann wrote. “This is simply not how the Constitution works.”