‘Not how the Constitution works’: Federal judge tosses Trump suit seeking to disrupt Pa. election results
The case had been the last legal challenge on which the Trump campaign had pinned its hopes of disrupting the final vote tally. The judge described their arguments as "strained" and without merit.
With a withering opinion, a federal judge on Saturday threw out President Donald Trump’s last remaining legal challenge seeking to invalidate Pennsylvania’s election results, all but ensuring the state will finalize its vote tally as planned this week.
U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann described the case put forth by the president’s campaign as a tortured “Frankenstein’s Monster” and the remedy it sought — effectively disenfranchising nearly seven million voters in the state — as “unhinged.”
“One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption,” he wrote in his 37-page opinion. “Instead, this court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations … unsupported by the evidence.”
He continued: “This cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters in [the] sixth most populated state. Our people, laws and institutions demand more.”
Still, campaign lawyers tried to spin the ruling into a victory.
“Today’s decision ... helps us in our strategy to get expeditiously to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Trump legal advisers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis said in a jointly issued statement. They said they intended to seek an expedited hearing before the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat whose office had defended state elections administrators in the case, simply tweeted: “When can I say I told you so?”
“Suit dismissed,” he added. “Laws matter.”
The ruling also prompted Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, two weeks after it had been called by all major news outlets. In a statement, the senator described Brann, an Obama-appointee and former chairman of the Bradford County Republican Committee, as “a fair and unbiased jurist” and “a longtime conservative Republican.”
“With today’s decision … President Trump has exhausted all plausible legal options to challenge the result of the presidential race in Pennsylvania,” his statement read. “These developments, together with the outcomes in the rest of the nation, confirm that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and will become the 46th President of the United States.”
The case’s dismissal leaves only one other lawsuit that Trump’s campaign is still actively pursuing in the state — a fight before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over roughly 8,300 challenged mail ballots from Philadelphia.
Trump’s lawyers also urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a dispute over an additional 10,000 mail votes across the state. But the justices have given no indication they intend to do so.
But even if Trump were to prevail in both cases, neither suit is capable of eroding Biden’s lead in the state, which stood at more than 81,000 votes Saturday night.
And with a Monday deadline for counties to certify their final tallies, Gov. Tom Wolf and the state’s top election official, Kathy Boockvar, appeared set to move forward with cementing the results that will deliver the president-elect Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes.
In his ruling, Brann delivered a repudiation of both the Trump campaign’s unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud and the lawyer who presented them in court: Giuliani.
The former mayor of New York, who is leading Trump’s national effort to challenge the election’s outcome, personally took charge of the case at a hearing in Williamsport last week and delivered a fevered, fumbling performance built on baffling conspiracy theories of a nationwide cabal of Democratic mayors working to rig the election for Biden that had little to do with what campaign lawyers had argued in their filings.
He promised evidence. He didn’t deliver.
He promised affidavits detailing fraud. There were none.
And he vowed statistical analysis that would prove Trump had won the state in a landslide.
Nothing of the sort was ever filed with the court.
Instead, the case was resolved on a single point: Whether Boockvar had acted lawfully when she issued guidance suggesting counties alert voters whose mail ballots were in danger of being disqualified due to errors like missing signatures or secrecy envelopes.
Those warnings allowed voters in counties who had followed her advice to either correct their mistakes or cast a provisional ballot at the polls on Election Day.
Trump’s campaign, however, had argued that because several GOP-leaning counties hadn’t acted on Boockvar’s guidance, believing it to have no basis in state law, the Republican vote had ultimately been diluted.
Brann disagreed. He ultimately found that Boockvar’s advisories were lawful, none of the plaintiffs had standing to sue, and that if the individual voters from Republican strongholds who signed on as plaintiffs were going to sue anyone it should be election administrators in their counties who chose not to allow them to correct mistakes on their ballots.
“This is simply not how the Constitution works,” he wrote.
With one of their last remaining legal avenues now closed to them and time running out, Trump and his allies became increasingly desperate in their machinations to forestall what increasingly appeared to be the inevitable.
Speculation continued as to whether Trump would summon Pennsylvania’s top GOP lawmakers to the White House in an effort to persuade them to disrupt the certification process, as he attempted Friday with their counterparts in Michigan.
Jake Corman, the top Republican in the state Senate, and state House Speaker Bryan Cutler remained mum Saturday on whether they had received such an invitation and, if so, whether they would agree to attend.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly — a Butler County Republican and one of the president’s top boosters in the state — turned to Commonwealth Court, filing a lawsuit seeking to throw out all of the 2.6 million mail ballots cast in the state and arguing that the law that allowed them was unconstitutional.
Alternatively, the congressman suggested, the court could toss every vote cast in the state — disenfranchising an additional 4.3 million people — and appoint the GOP-controlled state legislature to decide the victor of the presidential race.
That notion has grown increasingly popular among Trump and his staunchest allies as the president has refused to accept his loss and the evidence they promised of widespread and systemic voter fraud has failed to materialize.
But it has only limited basis in law, and election law experts agreed that the lawsuit from Kelly — who made a name for himself shortly after Trump’s inauguration with conspiracy-mongering statements accusing Barack Obama of running a “shadow government” to undermine the president — had next to no chance of success.
Trump, though, remained bullish on its prospects.
“This is not at all frivolous,” he tweeted Saturday night. “It is brought on behalf of one of the most respected members of the United States Congress who is disgusted, like so many others, by an Election that is a fraudulent mess.”
The specific state statute Kelly challenged Saturday allowed no-excuse voting by mail in the state for the first time and was passed by state lawmakers in 2019 with only one Republican member of the General Assembly voting against it.
Kelly and the suit’s seven other plaintiffs — including Sean Parnell, who narrowly lost his race against incumbent Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.) and had tweeted in April encouraging his supporters to vote by mail — argue that the legislature did not have the authority to expand the availability of remote voting on their own.
Instead, they contend that the proper avenue for making that change was through amending the state’s constitution, a lengthier process that also includes a public vote on the proposed change.
Their lawsuit fails to acknowledge aspects of the 2019 law that required all challenges to it be filed before the state’s Supreme Court and within six months of its passing.
Even if the Commonwealth Court were to decide their arguments about the unconstitutionality of the statute have merit, it is unlikely it would take so drastic a step as to invalidate the votes of millions of Pennsylvanians without any accusation — let alone evidence — that fraudulent votes were cast.
Despite that lingering legal challenge, Wolf and Boockvar gave no indication Saturday that their plans to finalize the vote soon after the Monday deadline for counties had changed.
Only one county in the state, Berks — where Trump won by eight points — has reported that it won’t finish in time. Instead, a spokesperson said, the county plans to file its certified results by Wednesday.
Boockvar’s office has not responded to requests for comment on how that delay might affect the state’s schedule.
Staff writers Jonathan Lai and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.
Read U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann’s opinion: