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In scathing ruling, judge dismisses Trump campaign's effort to overturn election results in Pennsylvania

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 17 hrs ago Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY
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This story has been updated with the Trump presidential campaign's emergency appeal to the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and a state lawsuit that seeks to block the scheduled Nov. 23 certification of Pennsylvania's 2020 election results.

A Pennsylvania federal court on Saturday denied President Donald Trump's request to block certification of the state's election results to give his lawyers time to find evidence to support their claims of a fraudulent election system and improper ballot counting.

In a scathing ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann criticized the Trump campaign's lack of evidence to support its argument to potentially disenfranchise every voter in the commonwealth who cast a ballot  – nearly 7 million.

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Brann noted that the less-than-2-week-old case developed a "tortured procedural history" that included a parade of lawyers for the campaign, shifting legal arguments to avoid clashing with a federal appeals court ruling and an eleventh-hour motion to delay a hearing.

Brann wrote that the lone legal claim left standing – an alleged violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause – was like "Frankenstein’s Monster ... haphazardly stitched together" from two legal theories.

The ruling entirely dismissed the case filed by Trump's campaign and two Republican voters who said their ballots were rejected for technicalities, while those with similar flaws cast by thousands of voters in the state's Democratic strongholds were accepted. The decision specifically denied permission to amend the allegations.

"This Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in the contest of an election, in terms of the sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated," Brann wrote in the 37-page decision.

"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. "Instead, this court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations ... unsupported by evidence. 

"In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state."

a group of people in a room: Election workers count ballots at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Nov. 6. © Chris McGrath, Getty Images Election workers count ballots at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Nov. 6.

The decision slams the door on a pivotal case in Trump's faltering effort to get courts to overturn election results in states he lost to former Vice President Joe Biden. It came two days before Pennsylvania's Monday deadline to certify its results, a precursor to formally awarding the state's 20 electoral votes to Biden.

However, longshot legal challenges were launched in federal and state appeals courts after the ruling.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Monday granted the Trump campaign's motion for an emergency expedited review, with a Monday afternoon deadline for filing an initial legal brief. In a statement issued by the campaign, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said, "This is another case that appears to be moving quickly to the United States Supreme Court."

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a flag: Mail voting favored Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and in-person voting tended toward President Donald Trump. © Angela Weiss, AFP via Getty Images | Saul Loeb/AFP Mail voting favored Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and in-person voting tended toward President Donald Trump.

And on Sunday a group of Pennsylvania Republicans and electors, including U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, filed an emergency appeal in state court seeking a temporary block on the state's certification of 2020 election results. The group alleges this year's widespread use of absentee balloting, which followed a 2019 overhaul by state lawmakers, violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The group says they filed the lawsuit "not to subvert, but to maintain the existing status until the merits of the controversy can be fully heard and determined." If the state's certification were allowed to proceed, court authority to undo the process "becomes impossible," the group argues.

A state appeals court planned to hold a telephone status conference on Monday with attorneys on both sides of the issue. 

A state canvassing board in Michigan, which Biden carried, is scheduled to vote on certifying its totals Monday. Friday, a judge in Arizona dismissed the final case there that was related to the presidential race.

The Trump campaign faced an uphill battle throughout the closely watched case, which included arguments similar to those in lawsuits filed in other presidential campaign battleground states. Without supplying any witness affidavits or other evidence, the campaign argued that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots should have been rejected for defects but were accepted in a process that blocked meaningful oversight by Republican observers. 

Shifting arguments, parade of lawyers

Trump lawyers initially launched a legal broadside against mail voting, arguing that Pennsylvania's secretary of the commonwealth and elections officials in seven counties with high Democratic Party enrollment created an unconstitutional, two-tiered voting system.

The campaign argued that in-person voters, who largely voted for Trump, had to abide by strictly enforced rules. People who voted by mail, who largely cast their ballots for Biden, were subject to lax rules, the campaign argued.

The campaign shifted focus in an amended complaint that was filed as one team of lawyers departed and another entered – and as the federal appeals court decision in a different case blocked use of certain constitutional arguments.

The second complaint focused on allegations that elections officials improperly placed Republican watchers so far from mail ballot processing that they couldn't detect any improprieties. In addressing that argument, Brann wrote that Trump's lawyers failed to show that Democratic observers got access that Republicans didn't.

The revision challenged the so-called ballot curing process that the Trump campaign said improperly enabled elections officials in Democratic areas to contact and assist mail voters who had made mistakes on their ballots.

Brann's ruling said that although a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling did not require county election boards to contact those voters so they could fix their ballots, the state high court "declined to explicitly answer whether such a policy is necessarily forbidden."

Shortly before a hearing Tuesday, Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer and a former New York City mayor, entered the case. The legal strategy changed yet again. This time, the Trump campaign combined many of the legal arguments of the prior complaints in a proposed third version. The lawyers accused the state's secretary of the commonwealth and elections officials in seven Democrat-heavy counties of scheming to help elect Biden.

The proposed third complaint urged the federal court to disqualify millions of ballots, which would have wiped out the 81,813-vote edge Biden held in Pennsylvania as of Saturday night. Giuliani argued that the campaign did not want to disqualify every mail ballot.

Brann didn't even consider the third version of the lawsuit because it would have further delayed the case as the state faced its deadline to certify the results.

Legal experts panned case from the beginning 

Nine legal experts surveyed by USA TODAY criticized the Trump campaign's initial lawsuit, saying courts are reluctant to invalidate ballots cast by voters who followed what they believed to be the election rules.

The campaign's allegations didn't raise constitutional questions, the experts said, and mail voting is legal and used in many states beyond Pennsylvania.

Legal experts rap Trump legal challenge: Nine legal experts say Trump's lawsuit challenging election results in Pennsylvania is dead on arrival

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Their criticism sharpened as the Trump campaign lawsuit proceeded through legal twists and turns. 

“I have never seen a high-profile case like this cycle through so many sets of lawyers so quickly, nor a high-profile election case not handled by election law and federal court and appeals court specialists,” Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, and the author of Election Law Blog, wrote in an email.

“The claims are both legally and factually faulty," Hasen wrote.

Where's the evidence? In Pennsylvania, Trump wants questioned ballots or the entire election thrown out

Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the Trump campaign is "sending the message that election outcomes that go against Republicans are inherently illegitimate and need not be accepted – even if there is no evidence and no plausible legal argument that anything was wrong with the election."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In scathing ruling, judge dismisses Trump campaign's effort to overturn election results in Pennsylvania

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