MIAMI (CN) – A group of Bernie Sanders supporters faced off against the Democratic National Committee before an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday, fighting to resurrect their claims that the committee shafted them by favoring Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
The Sanders supporters urged the Atlanta-based federal appeals court, which held hearings in Miami on Tuesday, to revive a lawsuit in which they accused the DNC of shrugging off Sanders as a presidential candidate and diverting resources to help Clinton win the party’s nomination for president.
Dismissed last year in the Southern District of Florida, the lawsuit attempted to demonstrate the alleged Clinton favoritism by citing internal DNC emails, which had been stolen by hackers and released on WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence agencies have since linked the hack back to Russian agents involved in an election-meddling operation.
One of the hacked documents that the Sanders supporters used as evidence in their lawsuit was a 2016 DNC memo that discusses a strategy to protect Clinton's public image, while making "no mention" of any other candidate, according to the lawsuit.
"The DNC memo strongly indicates that the DNC’s entire approach to the [primary] process was guided by the singular goal of elevating Clinton to the general election contest," the complaint states.
On appeal Tuesday in the 11th Circuit, the plaintiffs’ attorney Jared Beck argued the DNC is trying to sidestep liability by portraying itself as an abstract entity without a duty to its donors.
Beck reasserted one of the case's central premises: that political donors relied upon the DNC's supposed commitment to neutrality when making their donations.
The lawsuit seeks class certification on behalf of Sanders campaign donors, DNC donors, and Democratic Party members in general.
Counts for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and violations of a Washington, D.C. deceptive trade code are among the causes of action.
During oral arguments, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan seemed skeptical that certain counts in the lawsuit could proceed with respect to the Sanders donors' alleged damages. The judge said it would be a stretch to show causation between those damages and the actions of the DNC, given that the DNC is an entity separate from the organization that accepted the donations – the Sanders campaign.
Judge Jordan further expressed reservations about the Sanders backers asking the court to hold that a political party has a fiduciary duty to its donors.
"You don't have any precedent [in relevant jurisdictions] that goes anywhere close to what you're asking us to do," Jordan told Beck.
Beck in turn argued that in a rapidly changing, post-Citizens United political landscape, where money reigns more than ever, courts nationwide need to rethink the relationship between political parties and their members.
He maintained that his clients had standing to bring a federal court action not only because they sustained financial losses, but because the stature and "value" of the Democratic Party, of which many of them are members, was diminished. It was an argument analogous to a securities law case in which a shareholder sues over diminishment in a company's value due to a wrongful act by board members.
Beck said the revelation of the alleged Clinton-coddling significantly "reduced the viability" of the Democratic Party.
DNC attorney Bruce Spiva countered that the litigation is attempting to "drag the federal court into an internal party dispute." He called the case a "church fight" replete with boilerplate damage claims.
His line of argument harkened back to the district court dismissal order last year, which tossed the case based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
In that August 2017 dismissal order, Senior U.S. District Judge William Zloch appeared reluctant to grant relief on matters concerning the internal workings of the Democratic Party.
"Grave questions regarding the DNC’s right of association would undoubtedly arise if this Court were to enjoin the DNC to a particular manner of governance,” the ruling states. “And those same concerns would arise with respect to any award of damages, which would impose liability for the DNC’s alleged decision to associate with a particular standard-bearer in a manner not otherwise prohibited by law.”
Zloch's decision found that the plaintiffs had failed to plead a causal connection between their damages and the DNC.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Jordan indicated that the lower court may have conflated the merits of the case with standing to sue. As he pointed out, the case was dismissed early in the pleading stage, when the court is generally obligated to give a plaintiff's allegations the benefit of the doubt.
Judge Jordan pressed the DNC’s legal counsel to concede that the court should consider on the merits whether the donors' contributions were made in reliance on the committee’s public assertions of impartiality.
But Spiva, the DNC's lawyer, wouldn't buckle. In a serpentine exchange with the judge, he refused to acknowledge that the donors' alleged losses represented a cognizable injury in federal court.
The DNC made a point of arguing that it did not improperly favor Clinton, and that many of the hacked emails were taken out of context.
The committee is listed as a defendant alongside Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was the head of the DNC at the time the internal emails were released on WikiLeaks. She resigned from that position in 2016 amid controversy surrounding the emails.
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