A federal judge has turned down the Trump administration’s bid to lift an order requiring officials to disclose internal records of a now-defunct commission set up to pursue President Donald Trump’s own unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud.
U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled last December that a member of the panel, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, was improperly denied access to materials prepared and submitted by his fellow commissioners.
Justice Department attorneys asked Kollar-Kotelly to reconsider her decision requiring greater disclosure to Dunlap, but in a 57-page ruling Wednesday she declined to disturb her original decision.
“Plaintiff ultimately should receive relevant documents that any of the former commissioners generated or received. This includes material that commissioners solicited and subsequently received from third parties,” wrote the judge, a Clinton appointee.
Kollar-Kotelly set a July 18 deadline for the records to be handed over to Dunlap. The administration could appeal, but will need emergency relief from the D.C. Circuit since Kollar-Kotelly declined to stay her ruling.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the judge’s decision. A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump issued a controversial executive order last May, creating the commission, formally known as the Presidential Advisory Committee of Election Integrity, and headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The group was slow to launch and beset by internal strife and lawsuits from critics. It held only two official, in-person meetings before Trump shut it down in January.
Dunlap argues that he was unable to participate in the work of PACEI because he was not given full access to materials used in in its deliberations:
Dunlap, a Democrat, filed suit last year under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Citing a 1999 federal appeals court ruling involving a blue-ribbon aviation-safety commission, he said he was being denied access to materials necessary to participate fully in the panel’s deliberations.
A White House statement that the election-fraud panel’s “initial findings” would be sent to the Department of Homeland Security for further action caused considerable confusion. Kollar-Kotelly said Dunlap has the right to see anything that could plausibly fall into that category.
“Plaintiff is entitled to see for himself whether any documents that were generated can be considered ‘findings’ by Commission staff or between certain of the commissioners and staff that, in lieu of a formal set of ‘findings’ or formal final report, will be recorded for posterity in the Archives as the fruits of the Commission,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote Wednesday.
The court didn’t hand Dunlap a complete victory, refusing (at least for now) his request to subpoena fellow SoS and PACEI Co-chair Kris Kobach of Kansas:
The judge did not grant Dunlap some additional relief he was seeking, including the right to use a subpoena to force Kobach, the panel’s vice chair, to retain all relevant documents he has in his possession. Kobach earlier agreed not to distribute any commission-related records publicly, at least for a time.
Kollar-Kotelly concluded Dunlap should not be permitted to subpoena Kobach right now, but the judge also took notice of a series of opinions from a federal judge and magistrate In Kansas, faulting him for defying court orders.
“The Court is aware that Mr. Kobach’s reputation for candor to the tribunal and compliance with its orders is less than sterling,” Kollar-Kotelly observed, before turning down the requested subpoena.
A spokeswoman for Kobach, who currently running for Kansas governor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Kudos to SoS Dunlap and his attorneys for persisting on this case. I’ll be curious to see what comes of this order; either there will be a trove of documents that suggests where PACEI was heading before it was disbanded, or there will be so few materials that claims of “initial findings” by the commission will be revealed to have been vastly overstated. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if the Administration and SoS Kobach seek to have the order blocked by an appeals court. Stay tuned …