Last week, a Federal District Court Judge held Donald Trump accountable for his habitual misuse of the justice system to threaten and punish his business competitors and political enemies. Judge Donald Middlebrooks, of the Southern District of Florida, presided over the former president’s suit against Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and the Democratic National Committee, among others, for conspiring to spread allegations that Trump had colluded with Russia in the 2016 campaign.
In a stinging 46-page opinion, Judge Middlebrooks imposed sanctions of close to $1 million. But his order was more notable for another reason: the judge held Trump and his lawyer “jointly and severally” liable for that sum.
Although the judge’s decision imposing sanctions was well-publicized, there has not been a sufficient focus on the judge’s scathing rebuke of Trump’s lawyer, Alina Habba, for her role in filing the meritless suit. “Here, we are confronted with a lawsuit that should never have been filed, which was completely frivolous, both factually and legally, and which was brought in bad faith for an improper purpose,” Middlebrooks wrote, decrying what he called “abusive litigation tactics.” In essence, by imposing joint liability, the court held that the lawyer is as responsible as her client.
Notwithstanding Trump’s decades-long trail of meritless, losing lawsuits, the imposition of sanctions is unusual; reprimanding and sanctioning his lawyer is rarer still. As serious as this is, however, Ms. Habba remains free to represent other clients.
The legal profession does have a remedy. There are disciplinary rules in every state that provide for the suspension or disbarment of an attorney for violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The conduct of Alina Habba in her representation of Trump in his lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and others was “vexatious and frivolous,” as Judge Middlebrooks noted. The judge’s ruling should be followed swiftly by sanctions imposed by state disciplinary authorities.
The disciplinary authorities in New Jersey and New York, where Ms. Habba is licensed as an attorney, should act swiftly to investigate and determine whether she is unfit to practice law, and, if appropriate, to prohibit her from doing so ever again. In addition, Judge Middlebrooks should be applauded for his plain-spoken condemnation of lawyers who abuse the courts by brandishing lawsuits as a weapon for their clients’ personal aggrandizement. We hope other judges faced with lawsuits that similarly threaten the justice system show similar probity – and courage.