Trump’s Wisconsin lawsuits are flaming out but the effects may linger

By: - December 5, 2020 10:00 am
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A flurry of lawsuits from the campaign of President Donald Trump and his allies have been filed in state and federal courts in Wisconsin. These lawsuits aim to throw out thousands of Democratic votes, overturn the election and kick the allocation of the state’s ten electoral votes to the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

Some of the lawsuits aim at technicalities to target absentee ballots and the votes of indefinitely confined voters while others perpetuate lies and conspiracy theories that have been spread across the country by the president and his allies. 

While none of the five lawsuits are likely to succeed, their effects include increasing the mobilization and radicalization of the voters in Wisconsin’s Republican base, casting doubts on the legitimacy of future elections and providing cover for a raft of new, restrictive election laws. 

There are two suits in federal court, one from the Trump campaign and another from QAnon-tied lawyer Sidney Powell. 

The Powell lawsuit, Feehan v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, initially named failed congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden as a plaintiff. Van Orden, who narrowly lost to Rep. Ron Kind in the race for the 3rd Congressional District, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he was included without his permission. 

The Powell lawsuit includes a number of factual errors and the original petition sought footage of ballot counting at the TCF Center. The TCF center is in Detroit.

Powell’s petition didn’t even ask for any relief. 

“While the caption of the motion includes the word ‘emergency’ and the attached proposed order seeks an ‘expedited’ injunction, neither the motion nor the proposed order indicate whether the plaintiffs are asking the court to act more quickly or why,” Pamela Pepper, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, wrote in an order. “As indicated, the motion does not request a hearing. It does not propose a briefing schedule.”

The other federal suit was filed by the Trump campaign against five of six members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission as well as officials in the state’s five largest and most Democratic cities. This lawsuit also names Gov. Tony Evers and Secretary of State Douglas La Follette. In Wisconsin, unlike other states, the secretary of state does not oversee election administration. 

The Trump campaign lawsuit charges that despite following long-running Wisconsin Election Commission guidance, the officials in just these Democratic cities broke the law and tainted more than 50,000 ballots. The campaign’s proposed relief is to invalidate the results of the vote and have the Legislature allocate Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes. 

A hearing in the federal suit is set for Dec. 10

In state court, the Trump campaign hasn’t fared very well either

A petition for original action filed by a Trump voter with the Wisconsin Supreme Court was denied on Thursday 4-3. That lawsuit —  brought by Trump voter Dean Mueller who is married to Karen Mueller, a state GOP official — argued that ballots placed in dropboxes shouldn’t be counted. 

Justice Brian Hagedorn joined the three liberal justices in declining to hear the case, saying it must first work its way through the lower courts.

Earlier on Thursday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had declined to accept another lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign for similar reasons. Hagedorn again joined the liberal justices, citing state law that says challenges of election determinations must be filed in circuit court. 

The conservative justices, while signaling the Trump campaign’s suit would lose on its merits, did not spare the dramatics in their dissents. 

“This court cannot continue to shirk its institutional responsibilities to the people of Wisconsin,” the dissenting justices wrote in their Mueller dissent. 

In her dissent from the decision not to accept the Trump campaign’s lawsuit, Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote that allowing the Wisconsin Election Commission to make rules about election administration would be a “death blow to democracy.” 


The refusal by the state supreme court to accept the case wasn’t the end of the road for the Trump campaign, which re-filed its lawsuit in circuit courts in Dane and Milwaukee counties. When a recount is appealed, state law allows Chief Justice Patience Roggensack to assign any circuit court to hear the case. 

On Thursday, Roggensack sent the case to Racine County Reserve Judge Stephen Simanek, who served for more than three decades as a circuit court judge. On Friday afternoon, Simanek set a hearing for the afternoon of Dec. 10, unless the hearing in the federal case runs long. 

Despite their low chance of success, the lawsuits have riled up Republican voters across the state with the fervent belief that the election was stolen from Trump. On Nov. 29, the Republican Party of Dane County made a Facebook post advertising a “Live Free or Die Rally” on Dec. 5. 

The advertisement called for civil war in defense of the president. 

“Our nation is on a path to civil war, due to an attempted theft of the 2020 Presidential election by a variety of forces which stand arrayed against ‘We the People.’” the post states. “Since the founding of these United States, millions of soldiers have given life and/or limb to uphold and defend the US Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. They swore an oath, and we all owe them a debt.” 

“Now … that debt is in the process of being called due,” the post continues. “Now, we are all soldiers for truth, called to the defense of our nation. COME RALLY WITH US!!!!!” 

But it’s not just Republican voters stirring discontent. On Dec. 11, Republicans in the Assembly will hold a hearing on an investigation into election results including testimony echoing many of the conspiracy theories spreading across the country. 

Moving forward, Republican officials have signaled they may use the chaos they’ve sown to further restrict voting rights in a state that already has one of the most restrictive voter ID laws and most effective gerrymanders in the country. 

In a radio interview last week with Steve Scaffidi on WTMJ-AM (620), Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-8th District) said it might be necessary for the state’s election law to be reformed. 

“Passions are hot right now but I think most Wisconsinites want to have confidence in their elections and regardless of how that legal process plays out we need to have an election reform law that tackles things like outdated voter rolls, like this whole nonsense about exploiting indefinite confinement,” Gallagher said. 

Whatever long-term strategy arises from these lawsuits, they must be wrapped up soon. The electoral college will meet to vote on Dec. 14 to elect Joe Biden.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.