Notes on Judge Middlebrooks’ Order for Sanctions

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U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, a judge for the Southern District of Florida, last year threw out Donald Trump’s idiot lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and a dozen other defendants. Last week, he entered a sanctions order against Trump and his attorney for a total of $938,000. That’s less impressive than it sounds, because Trump is playing with other peoples’ money. Not his own. As a deterrent against still more stupid, legal theater lawsuits, it’s not very effective. WC will get back to that in a moment.

One of the things that Judge Middlebrooks makes clear is that the case before him was simply the latest instance of a kind of use of lawsuits as political street theater. “[T]his case is part of Mr. Trump’s pattern of misusing the courts to serve political purposes.” Judge Middlebrooks held. You can read the 46-page decision for yourself, but WC wants to focus on just how utterly inane some of Trump’s lawsuits have been.

Trump’s lawsuit against the Pulitzer Prize Committee.

On December 13, 2022, Trump followed up on earlier threats by filing a lawsuit in a state court in Okeechobee, Florida, a location with no apparent connection to either Trump or any of the defendants. Trump v. Members of the Pulitzer Prize Board et al. Trump sued, individually, the nineteen members of the Pulitzer Prize Board alleging “defamation by implication.” The 19 members of the Pulitzer Prize Board hadn’t said anything about Trump. But they had the temerity, the unmitigated gall to give a Pulitzer Prize to the New York Times and the Washington Post who had exposed the multiple relationships between Russia and Trump and his appointees. 1

Judge Middlebrooks found:

It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. The 2018 Pulitzer Award for National Reporting honored the staffs of the New York Times and the Washington Post “[f]or deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connection to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.” The effort by Mr. Trump and his lawyers to use the courts to bully journalists as part of a dishonest and futile attempt to rewrite history is a shameless attack on a freedom essential to democracy.

Trump v. Clinton et al., Case 2:22-cv-14102-DMM, Order on Sanctions, p. 24.

This lawsuit is still spending, but has zero chance of getting anything but dismissed. The lawsuit was funded – court costs and attorneys’ fee paid – by Trump’s appeals to his supporters for donations. When the lawsuit is dismissed, and sanctions are imposed for Trump’s abuse of the litigation process, the actions will be paid with money Trump has conned from his supporters.

Trump v. Letitia James

James is the New York Attorney General. Trump has filed at least three lawsuits against James, accusing her of “political animus” against Trump. Two of the three cases have been dismissed; Trump has appealed the loss in the case in the New York State courts all the way to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s Supreme Court, where the court affirmed Trump’s loss in a two sentence opinion.

Of course, despite Trump’s claims, the New York litigation was far from frivolous and the senior financial officer and the Trump Organization itself were found guilty of serious crimes.

Trump v. Twitter

Trump sued Twitter2 when Twitter kicked Trump off the Twitter platform following the events that attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021. Trump’s claim was that Twitter censored his speech in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Of course, the First Amendment only prohibits government action against speech, not private action, and Twitter is a private company, not the government. Trump had to allege that Twitter was so dominated by governmental authorities as to be considered a “state actor.”

Trump sent “breaking news alert” text messages directly to his followers including a link that asked them to donate to his Save America PAC:

President Trump is filing a LAWSUIT against Facebook and Twitter for UNFAIR CENSORSHIP! For the NEXT HOUR we’ve activated a 5X-IMPACT on ALL GIFTS! Please contribute IMMEDIATELY to INCREASE your impact by 500% and to get your name on the Donor List President Trump sees!

(Capital letters and bold face in the original)

The District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed Trump’s case in its entirety finding that “the amended complaint does not plausibly allege that Twitter acted as a government entity when it closed plaintiffs’ accounts.” Trump has appealed, but Trump’s claim that it was Democratic members of Congress, Vice President Harris, and First Lady Michelle Obama, that “coerced” Twitter to censor Trump is simply unsupported by any evidence. The California court imposed sanctions, but they will be paid with other peoples’ money.

Trump v. CNN

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. sued CNN for libel based upon an article by a contributor entitled “Soliciting dirt on your opponents from a foreign government is a crime. Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with it.”3 The case was dismissed for failure to adequately plead actual malice, the legal requirement where the alleged libel victim is a public figure. Trump did not appeal. But that didn’t stop him from using the failed lawsuit as a fundraising vehicle. Trump promptly issued issuing the following appeal:

I’m calling on my best and most dedicated supporters to add their names to stand with me in my impending lawsuit against fake news CNN . . . Add your name immediately to show your support for my upcoming lawsuit against fake news CNN.

Trump has pulled the same stunt with a second lawsuit against CNN. And the list of these kinds of donor-funded lawsuits WC has set out here is only a partial list.

Finally, a Conclusion.

But the four examples here are enough to prove WC’s thesis: Trump and his supporters are continuing to file stupid, frivolous lawsuits, that aren’t just funded by his supporters but the inevitable sanctions for the frivolous cases are being paid by those supporters. As Judge Middlebrooks concluded,

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.

Trump v. Clinton et al., Case 2:22-cv-14102-DMM, Order on Sanctions, p. 34.

Trump’s Save America PAC has spent $9.7 million on legal bills just since 2021 according to a Washington Post review of FEC filings. Trump has paid more than $2 million to Alina Habba and Habba Madaio & Associates, Trump’s attorneys in the Trump v. Clinton et al. case. Even if Habba were to pay the full $937,000 in sanctions, she’s still money ahead.

That’s not much of a deterrent.

Trump and his minions are trying to do to the American legal system what they have done to its other systems: tear them down out of pique. The courts should conclude that Trump is a vexatious litigant, a person given to filing harassing, meritless lawsuits. There are remedies for dealing with vexatious litigants, and they should be invoked against Trump. Ordering payment of the victims’ costs and attorneys’ fees isn’t just inadequate; it’s proven to be inadequate.

1 The Pulitzer Prize Board has a formal process for review of claims against disputed entries. That process was invoked by Trump. Two independent reviews concluded “no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the [2018 Pulitzer Prizes in National Reporting] conferral of the prizes.” Trump went ahead with his lawsuit.

2 And Facebook. And YouTube. And Google.

3 Use of the corporate plaintiff, “Donald Trump for President, Inc.” is a strategy to avoid paying sanctions. The corporation is an empty shell.

One thought on “Notes on Judge Middlebrooks’ Order for Sanctions

  1. Is “Ordering payment of the victims’ costs and attorneys’ fees” a required first step before labeling Trump a vexatious litigant?

    It may not be effective in stopping Trump but the public has a chance to see the judicial system defending itself from abuse


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