Cleta Mitchell is no longer a partner at Foley & Lardner, days after she joined a phone call on which President Donald Trump asked the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” enough votes to turn the state’s election in his favor.
“Cleta Mitchell has informed firm management of her decision to resign from Foley & Lardner effective immediately,” Dan Farrell, a firm spokesman, said in a statement. “Ms. Mitchell concluded that her departure was in the firm’s best interests, as well as in her own personal best interests. We thank her for her contributions to the firm and wish her well.”
The longtime Republican lawyer’s presence on the call led the firm on Monday to say it was “concerned by” and investigating her role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results. A spokesman said the firm had adopted a policy that it wouldn’t participate in any challenge of election results.
On the hour-long phone call, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger repeatedly declined the president’s requests, responding that the count narrowly favoring President-elect Joe Biden was accurate. Raffensperger’s office has since refuted specific theories Trump advanced on the call, such as large numbers of dead people having voted.
Mitchell asserted during the conversation that “like 4,500” ballots were cast in Georgia by people who had moved out of the state and registered to vote elsewhere, according to a recording of the call obtained by Bloomberg News. Ryan Germany, Raffensperger’s lawyer, called that claim “not accurate.” He noted those claims had been investigated to find they were related to people who had moved back to the state “years ago.”
Foley & Lardner was criticized online almost immediately after Mitchell’s presence on the call was disclosed.
The Lincoln Project, a group formed by conservative lawyers who oppose Trump, tweeted details about Foley & Lardner, urging people to contact the firm. The group has also targeted law firms Jones Day and Porter Wright for their work on election related lawsuits.
Mitchell has represented Trump in the past, including in 2011 when he was accused of violating federal election laws in a previous exploratory presidential run by accepting illegal in-kind contributions from his business, according to her firm.
Based in Washington, Mitchell, 70, has represented the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also served as co-counsel for the National Rifle Association in a Supreme Court case, McConnell v. FEC, contesting the bipartisan campaign finance reform law passed in 2002 known as the McCain-Feingold Act.
Conservative Legal Causes
This isn’t the first time Mitchell’s involvement in politically sensitive issues caused stress for her firm.
In 2011, the Human Rights Campaign downgraded Foley & Lardner’s Corporate Equality Index score after expressing concern over Mitchell’s representation of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposed same-sex marriage. Mitchell in 2011 registered as a lobbyist for the group, according to records from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
“The firm’s involvement,” Joe Solmonese, then the Human Rights Campaign president, wrote, “has gone well beyond simple legal representation of an unpopular client.”
Foley & Lardner defended Mitchell’s work at the time, according to a story published by The American Lawyer.
“Our lawyers and clients undoubtedly hold divergent views on any number of issues,” a firm spokesperson reportedly told the legal trade publication at the time. “As a firm, we do not foreclose representation of clients who seek to advocate a controversial or unpopular viewpoint, even if that viewpoint deviates from or conflicts with the firm’s institutional or internal position. Contrary to the stance taken by the HRC, the notion that a client’s views and interests may be attributed to its law firm is antithetical to the fundamental precepts of the American system of justice and is a notion that we soundly reject.”
Mitchell had also previously refrained from referencing her law firm affiliation in at least one politically sensitive case.
She listed the ActRight Legal Foundation, not Foley & Lardner, on an amicus brief she filed with the Supreme Court in 2013. Her brief asked the justices to overturn an appeals court ruling striking down California’s Proposition 8, a move which would have effectively banned same sex-marriage in the state.
Lawyers, of course, are asked to represent unpopular clients and defend unpopular opinions. As private businesses, though, law firms can make judgment calls about what types of cases they want their lawyers to handle, said Jan Jacobowitz, the former director of the Professional Responsibility & Ethics Program at the University of Miami’s School of Law.
Mitchell’s role on the president’s call also blurred the lines between an advocating for an unpopular president and, potentially, breaching lawyers’ professional rule to not participate in criminal behavior by their clients, according to critics.
Some Trump defenders have argued that the call was part of confidential settlement discussions in litigation over the Georgia election results. But, by asking Raffensperger to “recalculate” the election tally, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) are among those who argue the president engaged in a conspiracy to commit election crimes.
Jacobowitz said lawyers’ involvement in Trump’s post-election challenges have stressed the application of the legal ethics rules.
“Thus far the lawyers have not faced disciplined,” she said. “And it’s difficult to ascertain whether some of these lawyers are being attacked just for handling an unpopular cause or whether instead they have crossed the ethical line into impermissible frivolity or worse.”