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Federal judge upholds fine against Kris Kobach for ‘pattern’ of ‘misleading the Court’ in voter-ID cases

President-elect Donald Trump stands with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach before their meeting at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., in November. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

A federal judge has upheld a $1,000 fine against the vice chair of President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, citing a “pattern” of “misleading the Court” in voter-ID cases. The ruling represents another blow to the credibility of a commission plagued by lawsuits and controversy in its first months of existence.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, vice chair of Trump’s commission, was fined earlier this year for making “patently misleading representations” to a federal court about a binder he was photographed carrying into a meeting with Trump late last year. As the defendant in a lawsuit over Kansas’ strict citizenship requirements for first-time voter registrants, Kobach had initially refused to produce that document in court, arguing that it did not contain “relevant information” to the case.

The photographed document included the text “Draft Amendments to the National Voter.” The rest of the text was obscured by Kobach’s arm. Elections experts widely assumed it referenced the National Voter Registration Act, the federal law at the center of the American Civil Liberties Union’s suit. A subsequently released email from Kobach to Trump’s transition team appeared to support that assumption.

In April, a federal magistrate judge agreed, finding the document germane to the proceedings, and sharply criticized Kobach’s misleading claims.

"At the risk of stating what should be obvious," U.S. Magistrate Judge James O’Hara wrote in April, “when any lawyer takes an unsupportable position in a simple matter such as this, it hurts his or her credibility when the court considers arguments on much more complex and nuanced matters,” including the ultimate issue of whether Kansas’s strict citizenship laws violated the National Voter Registration Act.

The ACLU subsequently sought and was awarded a $1,000 sanction against Kobach based on his “deceptive conduct and lack of candor” before the court. Kobach’s team appealed the sanction, saying that the apparent deception was simply the result of “inarticulate phrasing.”

This week, a federal judge sharply disagreed.

U.S. District Judge Court Julie Robinson upheld the fine, noting that Kobach’s misleading statements about the photographed document are not the only “statements made or positions taken by Secretary Kobach that have called his credibility into question.” Robinson cites several other misleading statements Kobach made to the court in the ACLU case, regarding class-action certification and the court’s ruling on a prior procedural question.

She also cites Kobach’s “mischaracterization” of a summary judgment in a separate lawsuit over Kansas’s proof of citizenship requirements.

Taken together, Robinson writes, the deceptions “demonstrate a pattern, which gives further credence to Judge O’Hara’s conclusion that a sanctions award is necessary to deter defense counsel in this case from misleading the Court about the facts and record in the future.”

Since its inception, the Election Integrity Commission has faced accusations of one-sidedness and preordained conclusions. It’s filled with a number of leading voices in the movement to restrict voting based on a belief in widespread fraud, including Kobach, Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation and conservative activist J. Christian Adams. Decades of research by state officials and elections experts have consistently shown that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

A federal ruling demonstrating Kobach’s “pattern” of deception on voter-ID cases is only likely to heighten the concerns of the commission’s critics.