The federal judge who refused to stop hand-counting Florida ballots during the 2000 presidential election is once again at the center of a high-profile case involving presidential politics. Only this time, its former President Donald Trump’s challenge to the Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, Perkins Coie and other progressive actors for their role in the publication of the Steele dossier.
Trump claims his campaign was falsely linked to Russia in the leadup to the election against Hillary Clinton, which he won. And while experts think the RICO suit might face uphill battles, the former president’s legal team is looking for any edge they can get, including asking the judge presiding over the case, Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks of Florida’s Southern District, to recuse from the dispute because he was nominated by former President Bill Clinton in 1997.
“There exists a reasonable basis that Judge Middlebrooks’ impartiality will be questioned,” wrote Trump’s attorney Peter Ticktin, with Ticktin Law Group PA, of Middlebrooks’ link to Hillary and Bill Clinton in an April motion to recuse.
“Appointment to the bench by a litigant, without more, will not ‘create in reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances that a reasonable inquiry would disclose, a perception that [the judge’s] ability to carry out judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality, and competence [would be] impaired,’” wrote Middlebrooks in an order denying the motion days later.
“Every federal judge is appointed by a president who is affiliated with a major political party, and therefore every federal judge could theoretically be viewed as beholden, to some extent or another,” he added. “As judges, we must all transcend politics.”
Trump’s suit, which takes aim at individuals and groups with ties to the investigation, seeks damages in excess of $24 million for defense costs, legal fees and related expenses.
Among the law firms involved with the sprawling litigation are: Kaplan Hecker & Fink representing the Democratic National Committee and former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Williams & Connolly for Hillary Clinton and Debevoise & Plimpton for Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, Robert E. Mook; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Akerman for Perkins Coie, and Jenner & Block and Latham & Watkins for former Perkins Coie partners Marc Elias and Michael A. Sussmann, respectively. The legal teams largely resemble those handling a pending trial against Sussmann, who is accused of making false statements to the FBI about purported ties between Donald Trump and Russia. That trial is scheduled to start next week before U.S. District Judge Christopher “Casey” Cooper of the District of Columbia.
In Florida, several motions to dismiss that lawsuit are currently before Middlebrooks, with the most recent request coming from former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.
Here’s some background on Middlebrooks.
>> He graduated from University of Florida in 1968 before attending the same university for its law school, which he graduated from in 1972. He was appointed to the federal bench by voice vote in 1997.
>> After law school, he started his own private law practice for a year before joining Democratic Florida Gov. Reubin Askew’s administration as an assistant general counsel, and general counsel from 1974 to 1977. Among his notable cases was the re-investigation of two Black Men convicted of murder. The men, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, were convicted by an all white jury for murders in the state’s panhandle, and Middlebrooks’ work led Askew to pardon both in 1975.
>> Middlebrooks famously sided with then-Vice President Al Gore in a dispute over ballot counting in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. But his decision to allow a recount, with future president George W. Bush ahead by less than 400 votes, was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court about a month later.
>> At the time of his involvement in the 2000 election, a New York Times article credited Middlebrooks as having a “record of fairness” and being “highly regarded” by members of both parties. They also noted two impactful decisions he’d written ahead of the pivotal election dispute. He allowed environmental claims to go forward against Royal Caribbean Cruises, the second largest cruise line in the world at the time, leading to a settlement with the Justice Department and $27 million in fines and fees. He also tossed claims of corruption against a local port, despite ”substantial evidence of greed and public corruption,” after he found the prosecution too flawed to allow the case to proceed.
>> Last year he denied the conservative Heritage Foundation and some of its connected groups’ attempt to quash a subpoena in an ongoing fight over changes to Florida’s voting laws. Middlebrooks rejected claims the requests for information were too burdensome and granted the motions to compel. “Circumstantial evidence of this nature could be relevant and therefore discoverable even if ultimately not admissible for the purpose of any perceived effort on the part of plaintiffs to impute Heritage’s positions and/or intent onto the legislature,” he wrote in a September, 2021 order.
>> A ruling by Middlebrooks in a dispute over credit card fees associated with the state’s red light camera system was upheld after a lengthy appeals fight. After ruling in favor of defendant American Traffic Solutions, dismissing the claim, the case went up to the 11th Circuit before being sent back to the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld Middlebrooks’ ruling.
>> Middlebrooks sided with a defendant in a criminal case involving illegal “kickbacks” after prosecutors tried to game the trial system during the pandemic. “I appreciate that the historical moment we are living through, which gave rise to the temporary suspension of grand juries, prevented the government from obtaining indictments in this district” Middlebrooks wrote in his early 2021 opinion, dismissing the case with prejudice after the delay allowed the charges to toll under the statute of limitations. “But our legal system has experienced public emergencies before, and it will experience them again.”
>> In a challenge against the “nations most litigious patent troll,” Middlebrooks sided with the alleged troll. In granting Shipping & Transit LLC’s motion to dismiss the court dodged thorny merit questions which, according to Ars Technica, would have nullified patents owned by the company, and alleged troll Martin Kelly Jones, which were used to extort money from small businesses and public transit systems.