Federal appeals court throws out Trump election lawsuit in Pennsylvania

A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania has delivered a strongly worded repudiation of Donald Trump’s latest attempt to overturn his presidential election defeat, dismissing his challenge to the state’s results as without merit, and backing a district judge who likened the president’s evidence-free and error-strewn lawsuit to “Frankenstein’s monster”.

On Friday, a three-member panel confirmed unanimously a lower court’s decision last week to rebuff the arguments made by Trump’s legal team, led by the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, that voting in Pennsylvania was marred by widespread fraud.

Trump lost Pennsylvania, a state he had won in 2016, to the Democratic president-elect Joe Biden by more than 80,000 votes.

“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here,” Judge Stephanos Bibas wrote for the 3rd US circuit court of appeals.

The judge denounced as “breathtaking” a Republican request to reverse certification of the vote, adding: “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president. Ballots, not briefs, decide elections. [The] campaign’s claims have no merit.”

The ruling – the Trump team’s 38th court defeat in election lawsuits nationwide – reaffirmed US district judge Matthew Brann’s earlier view of Giuliani’s complaint, delivered after he listened to five hours of oral arguments last week. The lawsuit, Brann said, was: “like Frankenstein’s Monster … haphazardly stitched together”.

Friday’s ruling was also laced with irony given that Trump, who has long called for the outcome of the 2020 presidential election to be settled in the courtroom, appointed Bibas in 2017. The two other panel judges were also appointed by Republican presidents, and Maryanne Trump Barry, the president’s sister, sat on the appeals court for two decades until her retirement last year.

Two days after the election, with the ballots of Pennsylvania’s 6.8 million voters still being tallied, Trump tweeted that the “US Supreme Court should decide!”, and on Saturday the president was still falsely insisting he had won the state.

“The Pennsylvania votes were RIGGED. All other swing states also,” Trump wrote.

Despite the baseless claim, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes remain with Biden, who won the popular vote nationally by more than 6 million, and who will hold a 306-232 advantage when the college meets to seat the 46th US president next month.

Trump’s lawyers, meanwhile, have promised to elevate their complaint to the supreme court.

“The activist judicial machinery in Pennsylvania continues to cover up the allegations of massive fraud,” Trump’s lawyer Jenna Ellis tweeted after Friday’s ruling. “On to SCOTUS!”

Trump and his surrogates have attacked the election as flawed and filed a flurry of lawsuits to try to block the results in six battleground states. But they have found little sympathy from judges, nearly all of whom dismissed their complaints about the security of mail-in ballots, which millions of people used to vote from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Trump’s fading hopes could ultimately rest with the supreme court’s new conservative 6-3 majority, fashioned by his appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a long-serving liberal justice who died in September. He believes the high court would be more receptive than federal courts, especially since it upheld Pennsylvania’s decision to accept mail-in ballots through 6 November by only a 4-4 vote last month, with Coney Barrett abstaining.

In the latest case, the Trump campaign, through Giuliani, asked to disenfranchise 700,000 mail-in votes from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other Democratic-leaning areas.

“One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption,” Brann wrote in his scathing ruling on 21 November. “That has not happened.”

A separate Republican challenge that reached the Pennsylvania supreme court this week sought to stop the state from further certifying any races on the ballot. The administration of the Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is fighting that effort, saying it would prevent the state’s legislature and congressional delegation from being seated in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, Trump said the 3 November election was still far from over. Yet he offered the clearest signal to date that he would leave the White House peaceably on 20 January if the electoral college formalized Biden’s win.

“Certainly I will. But you know that,” Trump said at the White House, taking questions from reporters for the first time since election day.

On Friday, however, he backtracked, wrongly stating that Biden needed to “prove” he had won 80m votes before being allowed to enter the White House.

Trump also continued to baselessly attack Detroit, Atlanta and other Democratic cities with large black populations as the source of “massive voter fraud”. And he claimed, without evidence, that a Pennsylvania poll watcher had uncovered computer memory drives that “gave Biden 50,000 votes” apiece.

All 50 states must certify their results before the electoral college meets on 14 December, and any challenge to the results must be resolved by 8 December.

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