US District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks’ point-by-point take-down of former President Donald Trump last week for a frivolous lawsuit thrust him into the national spotlight, but the South Florida jurist has handled cases before involving presidents and wannabe presidents—and with much higher stakes.
In 2000, Middlebrooks heard the petition against Palm Beach County elections supervisor Theresa LePore, an early court challenge of the 2000 presidential election. That election fight ultimately resulted in Bush v. Gore, the US Supreme Court case that decided the election. Middlebrooks cited Federalism while ruling that Florida’s recount should continue, writing that federal courts have “a very limited role,” in how states appoint electors, “and should not interfere except where there is an immediate need to correct a constitutional violation.”
It was a decidedly conservative opinion for a judge nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1997 after a career of championing historically liberal causes such as voters’ rights, equal justice, social services, and immigration.
The decision to let Florida to continue its recount was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which said it was “mindful of the limited role of the federal courts in assessing a state’s electoral process.”
The Supreme Court refused to take up that appeal. Lawyers for Bush continued pressing their case in state court, unsuccessfully seeking to halt the recount. On appeal, the US Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore voted 5-4 to stop the recounts, making George W. Bush president.
Lawyers who have appeared before Middlebrooks said his decision in election case and many others show his independence and steadfast devotion to the law, even when it may clash with his personal and political views.
“I’ve known the judge for 35 years and he has always been thoughtful, fascinated by difficult legal issues and takes the law very seriously,” said Bruce Rogow, who represented LePore and is the founding professor of Nova Southeastern University Law in Fort Lauderdale. “He doesn’t suffer fools well, and I think you can see that in [the Trump] ruling.”
On Thursday, Middlebrooks issued a blistering critique of Trump and his attorney, Alina Habba, over their lawsuit claiming Hillary Clinton, former government officials, and others lied about Trump in an attempt to steal the 2016 election. The judge asserted that Habba’s filings were without merit and repeated claims he had previously disallowed. Middlebrooks ruled she and Trump lied in national TV appearances, and levied nearly $1 million in sanctions against them.
“Here, we are confronted with a lawsuit that should never have been filed, which was completely frivolous, both factually and legally, and which was brought in bad faith for an improper purpose,” the judge wrote. “Mr. Trump is a prolific and sophisticated litigant who is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries.
“The deliberate use of a shotgun pleading is an abusive litigation tactic which amounts to obstruction of justice,” Middlebrooks wrote.
Rogow noted the differences between the somber and important treatment of 2000 election issues, and Trump’s lawsuit 22 years later.
Middlebrooks held the 2000 hearing in the main courtroom of the Depression-era grand federal court in Miami, a proceeding that drew some of the famed legal minds of the time. Former Solicitor General Ted Olson and attorney Ben Ginsburg represented Bush and his vice presidential nominee, Dick Cheney. Alan Dershowitz represented eight Palm Beach County voters. Harvard professor Laurence Tribe also spoke.
Rogow, who has appeared before the Supreme Court 11 times and has represented clients as diverse as 2 Live Crew, in an obscenity case, and Trump confidant Roger Stone, presented the winning argument.
“You have this juxtaposition from the 2000 election and all its gravity and the respect that was given by all sides—he knew we were on the cusp of history and heading to the Supreme Court—and now 22 years later the judge is dealing with another proceeding involving a presidential election which is off the wall in so many ways,” Rogow said.
Guy Lewis, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, appeared before Middlebrooks many times. The judge was always very prepared and fair, he said.
“He was the kind of judge straight out of central casting,” Lewis, who was appointed by Bush, said. “So when I see the kind of sanction he imposed, and the time he must have taken crafting that decision, it’s clear he must have been truly offended by the conduct he was witnessing in that case.”