A federal court holds Trump accountable for his abuse of the law: Here's why that matters

That million-dollar fine imposed on Trump and his lawyer for weaponizing the legal system is a serious deterrent

Published January 24, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Yes, Virginia, amid the clouds over Washington, D.C., silver linings sometimes do appear. One shone through brightly last Thursday. A federal court held former President Donald Trump to account — serious account — for filing legally frivolous "revenge" lawsuits and congenitally abusing the judicial system.

True, silver linings don't melt heavy clouds — for example, the White House's ongoing mishandling of the classified documents found at President Joe Biden's home and his think tank office; or the Supreme Court's avoidance of serious investigation of the leak that may well have helped end Roe v. Wade. 

Still, it's important not to miss powerful pro-democracy decisions in the lower courts. They are where, in actuality, most cases get decided. 

By one definition, "A frivolous lawsuit … is filed with the intent to harass, annoy, or disturb the opposite party." Sanctions for filing such suits are not common.

That is one reason why the $937,989 fine that the federal court in southern Florida imposed on Trump and his lawyer, Alina Habba, is so significant. The penalty appears to have registered on the former president: Within hours, he withdrew a lawsuit against New York Attorney General Letitia James, a suit that the court decision had identified as similarly frivolous and vengeful.

Accountability deters.

The court's opinion offers more, however, than can meet the eye in a headline. In effect, federal Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks describes Trump as a "legalistic autocrat." Political science scholars have coined that term to describe many 21st-century authoritarians who have strategically used and abused the law in service of their march toward antidemocratic power.

Judge Middlebrooks' decision called out Trump for "repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries" and describes him as "the mastermind of strategic abuse" of the legal process.

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Abusing the law to intimidate and neutralize opponents and turning courts into playthings for heads of state are what "legalistic autocrats" do. They get elected and then, like woodworms, burrow into legal institutions and eat them away from within. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, darling of Tucker Carlson and the Trumpist right, is the outstanding example. To rid himself of institutional curbs on his power, he has packed courts with allies, removed opposition figures and "expanded the length of their successors' terms of office so that they would carry his influence beyond the usual term of a democratic government." He also changed "parliamentary procedure so that opposition MPs could not even speak on the floor" of the legislature.

Similarly, the autocratic Polish government has claimed itself entitled, through the legal process, "to rid [the] government of the 'post communists,'" a term it uses for the center-left opposition.

Trump has always turned to the courts to accomplish his nefarious aims. By one count, he was involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits before he became president.

After he took office, his autocratic attitude toward the law came into even sharper focus. With the help of his U.S. Senate enabler, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump "stacked" the Supreme Court with enough reactionaries to create a revanchist majority. 

Trump's other primary legalistic enabler, then-Attorney General William Barr, appointed John Durham as a special counsel to go after those who had investigated Trump's collaboration with Russia in 2016 to help elect him president. Fortunately, juries have defeated Durham's efforts in the only two cases he brought to trial. 

Broadly speaking, the Trump-Barr-Durham attempts to weaponize law with fear and favor have fizzled spectacularly, even as Durham continues to work within the Justice Department.

The voters' 2020 rejection of Trump did not change his stripes. He remains a "legalistic autocrat" in exile, trying to use the cover of law to enhance himself at his opponents' expense. 

The real significance of Judge Middlebrooks' sanction of Trump is the signal it sends: The judiciary is willing to resist an autocratic personality's attempts to weaponize the law.

Trump's frivolous lawsuit, for which Judge Middlebrooks just sanctioned him, targeted the same opponents that Trump wanted Durham to prosecute: Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey and Acting Director Andrew McCabe, FBI agent Peter Strzok and others. Trump's suit made the spurious allegation that all those people had "orchestrated a malicious conspiracy ... in the hope of ... rigging the 2016 Presidential Election in favor of Hillary Clinton."

Which brings us back to the real significance of Judge Middlebrooks' order sanctioning Trump. It reflects the willingness and ability of the judiciary to resist an autocratic personality's attempts to use law to harass and destroy his opponents and dismantle limitations on his own power.

Robust judicial constraints on would-be strongmen are crucial to a democracy's resilience, according to a team of political scientists who studied 59 examples of autocratization in the last 30 years. "[J]udicial institutions can act as the 'last bulwark' against democratic breakdown," the authors found. 

That is exactly what the federal court did on Thursday when it resisted Trump's abuse of the legal process, an institution so vital to our constitutional republic.

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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Commentary Donald Trump Federal Judges Law Letitia James Trump Crimes