Arizona judge declines to sanction Kari Lake, legal team to conduct in election challenge case

A Maricopa County judge declined to award sanctions sought by county lawyers against Republican Kari Lake and her legal team after a three-day trial that confirmed Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ election victory.

Lake, who has been fighting to overturn the results of November’s election for months, lost again on May 22. Lawyers for the county filed a sanction request after the trial, writing that an assertion by Lake’s team that the election was “rigged” was “ heinous and profoundly harmful.” They noted that one of Lake’s own witnesses disproved his team’s contention that the county had not conducted signature verification of ballots.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson, however, ruled Friday that Lake’s failure to prove her claim by clear and convincing evidence doesn’t mean it was “groundless” and “not made in good faith.”

“Even if her argument did not prevail, Lake, through her witness, presented facts consistent with and in support of her legal argument,” Thompson wrote.

Thompson’s ruling also confirmed the evidence Lake and her lawyers presented didn’t prove misconduct by election officials or that any misconduct affected the outcome of the 2022 election “by a competent mathematical basis.”

Tom Liddy, civil division chief in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said he believed sanctions were appropriate in the case and that the evidence of false assertions made by Lake’s team was clear. Sanctions should be part of the “self-disciplining” process for lawyers, he said, and without that discipline, “the reputation of attorneys and the judicial system descends.”

Politicians can “stand on a soapbox” and voters can be the arbiters of what they say, he said. But “in our courts of law, officers of the court, which all lawyers are, have a much higher standard. It has to mean something.”

Lake’s loss at trial on Monday marked the second time Thompson has rejected her claims of malfeasance by county officials. He was first ruled against her legal challenge in December, saying that while the election system was not “perfect,” it was “more than sufficient to comply with the law and conduct a valid election.”

The Arizona Supreme Court rejected most of her appeals but sent the case back to Thompson, giving Lake another chance to prove her contention that the county’s signature verification of voters had been conducted illegally.

In the latest trial, Lake’s legal team unsuccessfully argued it could prove that election workers examined voter signatures too briefly to count as legally acceptable verification.

Why county lawyers sought financial sanctions against Lake team

Attorneys for Maricopa County subsequently pressed the judge for financial sanctions as a way to publicly reprimand Lake’s team.

They identified five false claims or “misrepresentations” made by Lake or her lawyers Bryan Blehm of Scottsdale and Kurt Olsen of Washington, DC, in the two months since the Arizona Supreme Court sent the case back to Thompson.

Those included misrepresenting the findings of an independent investigation of the county’s Election Day printer problems and testimony in prior proceedings given by county officials.

Lake also pressed forward with a “frivolous” claim that Maricopa County did not do signature verification on early ballots, knowing his own witnesses would testify they were a part of that process, the county said in its sanctions request. The county said Lake and her team “engaged in a blatant effort to deceive” the judge by claiming the 2022 election was rigged, without trying to prove that allegation, and without evidence regardless.

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In response, Olsen and Blehm countered it was the county that was mischaracterizing the case.

“Trust in the elections is not furthered by punishing those who bring legitimate claims as plaintiff did here,” they wrote in a 20-page reply on Thursday. The reply claims nothing in the court record shows Lake’s claims “constitute harassment, are groundless, and were not made in good faith.”

Thompson agreed in his ruling, writing that “misstatements” made by Lake’s team didn’t “stray from advocacy into misconduct” in a way that would warrant sanctions.

Blehm declined comment after the judge’s Friday ruling.

Losses in court still cost to former gubernatorial candidate

Lake’s effort to set aside Hobbs’ victory has already cost the former candidate about $35,000 in fees and sanctions, beyond what she is paying her own legal team, and that could climb.

At the end of 2022, Lake had paid Olsen’s firm $187,000 and paid Blehm $40,000 from her campaign account, according to reports she is required to file under state law, but that likely doesn’t capture the full bill.

Lake has a separate fundraising account that does not require disclosure, and the publicly available reports do not cover the past five months, while its appeals have been weaved through the state Court of Appeals and Arizona Supreme Court.

The Arizona Supreme Court, after its ruling earlier this month, sanctioned and fined Lake’s lawyers $2,000 for repeatedly making “unequivocally false” statements in court.

Thompson noted in his ruling Friday that there “is a distinction between imposing sanctions by the Supreme Court of Arizona for continuing to represent as true facts or arguments which have been adjudicated previously and found to be without merit and advocacy on a yet to be determined theory of the case in closing argument.”

Thompson also rejected county lawyers’ desire to formally sanction Lake at her December trial. But in that proceeding, he ordered Lake to pay $33,000 to cover the costs of Hobbs’ expert witnesses.

In a separate case, a federal judge sanctioned Lake and former GOP candidate for secretary of state Mark Finchem over a lawsuit they filed in April 2022 seeking to bar Maricopa and Pima counties from using any electronic device to cast or count votes.

US District Court Judge John Tuchi said Lake should cover the costs of the defendants’ legal fees, but the lawyers have been going back and forth in court about the appropriate amount.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and one outside lawyer asked the judge to award them $141,690 to cover their attorneys’ fees, according to court records.

The goal of the sanction order, Tuchi wrote in December, was to make clear the court did not condone “furthering false narratives that baselessly undermine public trust at a time of increasing disinformation about, and distrust in, the democratic process. It is to send a message to those who might file similarly baseless suits in the future.”

Eight days after that ruling, Lake filed her election challenge in Maricopa County, seeking to unseat Hobbs.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at [email protected] or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

Reach reporter Ray Stern at [email protected] or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona judge declines to sanction Lake, legal team for trial conduct

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