Trump Allies Begin First Line of Attack Against Arizona Election Case


Allies of former President Donald J. Trump charged in a sweeping Arizona election case on Friday began filing what is expected to be a series of challenges, seizing on a new state law aimed at curbing litigation and prosecutions involving political figures.

The law was originally crafted by Kory Langhofer, a Phoenix lawyer who worked for the Trump campaign during the 2020 election but who subsequently fell out of favor with the former president. He said the 2022 law’s intent was to limit politically motivated prosecutions on both sides of the aisle.

The new challenges could have the effect of delaying the election case in Arizona for several months, given the timeline for decisions and appeals. The case was brought in April by the state attorney general, Kris Mayes, a Democrat.

The 18 defendants have each been charged with nine counts of fraud, forgery and conspiracy. The indictment lays out a series of efforts by the defendants to overturn Arizona’s election results, from the plan to deploy fake electors on Mr. Trump’s behalf, despite his loss at the polls, to the steps some took to put pressure on “officials responsible for certifying election results.”

Seven Trump advisers are among those charged, among them Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, and Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. Eleven Republicans committed to Mr. Trump who claimed to be the state’s electors, even though President Biden had already been certified by state officials as the winner in Arizona, were also charged.

The legislation, which cleared the Republican-dominated Legislature and was signed by the Republican governor at the time, Doug Ducey, was an expansion of a law that mirrors statutes in many other states that aim to discourage a legal maneuver known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

These so-called “anti-SLAPP” laws are aimed at preventing meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against members of the public who speak out against them.

But the 2022 expansion in Arizona allowed for the law to be applied even more broadly, in cases including challenges to criminal prosecutions.

The new legal motions argue that the government’s case against the Trump allies is the equivalent of a SLAPP case and should be dismissed.

The first motion making use of the law was filed on Friday by John Eastman, a lawyer who was one of the architects of the plan to deploy fake electors in swing states.

“Arizona’s 2022 amendments, which expanded its state statute to include criminal proceedings, is quite clearly aimed at preventing public officials from using the criminal process as a weapon to punish and prevent speech on political issues,” Ashley Adams, Mr. Eastman’s lawyer, wrote in the filing.

She continued, “Public officials have the right to voice their disagreement through open discourse guaranteed by the First Amendment, but they should not use indictments to silence their opponents, as the attorney general has tried to do here.”

Defense lawyers for others among the 18 people charged in the case have said they plan to file many similar motions.

The Arizona law has already been deployed in court. Kari Lake, the failed Republican candidate for governor who has espoused falsehoods about election malfeasance, attempted to use the enhanced anti-SLAPP law as a legal shield after she was sued for defamation by a top election official in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. She was not successful, and when she later declined to mount a defense in the defamation case, a default judgment was entered.

In February, a man who was charged with disorderly conduct after a dispute at a mobile-home park in Cottonwood, Ariz., successfully used the new law to have some of the charges thrown out.

Mr. Langhofer represented the Trump campaign in the aftermath of the 2020 election but angered Mr. Trump by not embracing his baseless election fraud claims. In an interview, Mr. Langhofer said he had crafted the legislation because he had grown dismayed by the increasing hostility and danger faced by people who work in politics and had considered moving out of the country because of it.

“I became really fearful that this tit-for-tat political prosecution trend would spin out of control, and once it ramps up, it’s really hard to stop it,” he said in an interview. “Once you get on that train, there’s no station to stop at.”

He said that a friend had persuaded him to try crafting a legislative measure to address the problem and that he had centered it around the anti-SLAPP law. (Mr. Langhofer was himself once found by a court to have filed a frivolous lawsuit, a finding he disputed.)

He took his proposal to State Representative Ben Toma, a conservative from the Phoenix suburbs who was then the majority leader and is now speaker of the Arizona House and a congressional candidate. At the time, Mr. Toma said the bill, which he introduced, was intended to “make sure that nobody who exercises their First Amendment rights should be sued simply because they’re doing that.”

The legislation gives people 60 days after they are served notice of proceedings to challenge litigation and prosecutions in court, but they have to make the case that they are victims of political retaliation.

Mr. Langhofer said the election prosecution was a good test case.

“This is the first case in Arizona that I think is a very strong contender for the relief the law envisages,” he said. Regarding the election prosecution, he said: “Two things can be true at the same time. The defendants behaved very badly and said things that weren’t true, and they are victims of a politically motivated prosecution. Both of these things can be true, and that appears to be what’s happening.”

The office of Ms. Mayes, the attorney general, had no comment on the new filing.

Arizona is one of five states that have brought criminal prosecutions related to the Trump campaign’s handling of the 2020 election. Jack Smith, a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, has also brought charges against Mr. Trump over election interference claims.

On Friday, a judge in Nevada threw out that state’s case against the six Republicans who acted as fake electors there, saying state prosecutors had chosen the wrong venue to file the case. The office of Nevada’s attorney general, Aaron D. Ford, said, it would appeal.

While many other states have anti-SLAPP laws, they apply to civil cases. At the time the 2022 Arizona measure was passed, it received relatively little attention. Some First Amendment advocates in the state who had spent years unsuccessfully urging Arizona’s lawmakers to pass stronger protections against retaliation for free speech said they were caught off guard by the law.

Gregg Leslie, executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University, said that the law “really came out of nowhere,” and that press freedom groups such as his were not consulted.

Arizona Democrats said there had initially been bipartisan support for the measure because, in the wake of crackdowns against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, some Democrats believed it could protect anti-police protesters from retaliatory arrests. But as the proposed law moved through the Legislature and was changed through amendments, they began to express some reservations about whether it was necessary and mostly ended up voting against it.

“It sounded very fishy,” said Martín Quezada, a former Democratic state senator who voted against the measure. “It was a complicated issue, and not a lot of people understood what they were trying to accomplish. People had invested a lot of their mental energy in a lot of other big stuff. That’s kind of how it slipped through.”

Lawmakers said the anti-SLAPP bill at the time seemed almost like an afterthought, compared with center-court political fights over Republican proposals to overhaul Arizona’s voting system by requiring hand counts of ballots, imposing stricter voter identification requirements or giving the Legislature the power to reject election results. When the bill came up for a final vote, it passed without any lawmakers’ having stood to make floor speeches for or against it.

“At that period of time, there were hundreds of bills coming through the Legislature,” said Domingo DeGrazia, a former Democratic state legislator who voted against the measure in a House committee hearing after questioning whether it was necessary. “It was the standard inundation.”



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