In June 2016, Beck & Lee, a legal firm based in Miami, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of supporters of Bernie Sanders against the Democratic National Committee and its former chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, alleging that the DNC broke legally-binding neutrality agreements in the Democratic primaries by strategizing to make Hillary Clinton the nominee before a single vote was cast. Transcripts from the hearing on the lawsuit, which took place in a federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 2017, document the DNC’s lack of commitment to key articles of its own charter. As Michael Sainato reported for the Observer, in that hearing, attorneys for the DNC claimed that Article V, Section 4 of the DNC Charter—which instructs the DNC chair and staff to ensure neutrality in the Democratic presidential primaries—is actually “a discretionary rule” that the DNC “didn’t need to adopt to begin with.”46
(The relevant text of the DNC charter states: “the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.” Article V, Section 4, The Charter & The Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States, as Amended by the Democratic National Committee, August 28, 2015.)
Later in the hearing, a DNC attorney asserted that it would have been within the DNC’s rights to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” Bruce Spiva, the DNC attorney, said, “That’s not the way it was done. But they could have. And that would have also been their right.” Furthermore, as Sainato reported for the Observer, the DNC attorneys argued that specific language used in the DNC charter—including the terms “impartial” and “evenhanded”—could not be interpreted in a court of law. Describing the plaintiff’s case as “inchoate,” Spiva asserted that any judicial effort to “define what constitutes evenhandedness and impartiality” would “drag the Court . . . into a political question and a question of how the party runs its own affairs.”
In response, the attorney representing Sanders’s supporters, Jared Beck, told the judge, “Your Honor, I’m shocked to hear that we can’t define what it means to be evenhanded and impartial. If that were the case, we couldn’t have courts. I mean, that’s what courts do every day, is decide disputes in an evenhanded and impartial manner.” Earlier Beck argued that the running of elections in a fair and impartial manner was not only a “bedrock assumption” of democracy but also a binding commitment for the DNC: “That’s what the Democratic National Committee’s own charter says,” he told the court. “It says it in black and white. And they can’t deny that.” Furthermore, Beck contended, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz and other DNC staff had stated “over and over again in the media” that “they were, in fact, acting in compliance with the charter.”
As Sainato has documented in a series of previous reports for the Observer, the hearings in the class-action lawsuit against the DNC and its chair follow on the heels of the release of 20,000 DNC emails from January 2015 to May 2016, which WikiLeaks first made public in July 2016. Most of the released emails came from seven prominent DNC staff members. As Sainato reported in July 2016, the leaked emails show that, “[i]nstead of treating Sanders as a viable candidate for the Democratic ticket, the DNC worked against him and his campaign to ensure Clinton received the nomination.” Specifically, Sainato wrote, the release provided further evidence that the DNC “broke its own charter” by favoring Clinton as the nominee “long before any votes were cast.”
Additional reporters, including the Nation’s Joshua Holland, corroborated that the emails showed, in Holland’s words, that “by May, DNC staffers wanted Sanders out of the race.” But Holland also noted that the emails that caused the most “outrage” among Sanders’s supporters were all written after late April. That suggested, Holland wrote, that “committee members’ disdain for the Sanders camp didn’t reflect their baseline attitude toward a long-shot, anti-establishment challenger from the left. Rather, it appears to have developed over the course of the long race.” As Ruby Cramer reported for BuzzFeed in July 2016, the released DNC emails also showed that the DNC and Clinton’s campaign had begun merging operations—consolidating research, communications, and media monitoring—before Sanders dropped out of the race. As Cramer explained, “Once a candidate has become the presumptive nominee, it’s typical for their campaign and the party to join forces,” but the released DNC messages showed that “this process began while Bernie Sanders remained a viable candidate, sooner than previously reported or publicly disclosed.”
Much of the reporting and commentary on the DNC’s collusion with the Clinton campaign against Sanders in the Democratic primary—including coverage by progressive independent news organizations—has focused on whether or not election fraud took place. (For one example of this perspective that is distinguished by its careful analysis of exit polls, margin of error theories, and discrepancies in absentee and early ballots, see Jessica Bernstein and Hanna J. Hoffman, “With the Clinton Coronation Underway, Did Sanders Actually Win the Primary?” Truthout, July 28, 2016.)
As a result of this focus, many members of the public harbor a general sense that Sanders was robbed. By contrast, other news outlets (and segments of the public) have sought to dismiss any consideration of election fraud in the Democratic primary as “conspiracy theory.” (See, e.g., an earlier piece by Joshua Holland, “The Conspiracy Theory That the Clinton Campaign Stole Votes Makes No Sense,” Nation, April 14, 2016.)
Regardless of the judge’s eventual ruling, the class-action suit against the DNC has spurred corporate news outlets, such as Newsweek, to begin considering criticisms of the DNC’s handling of the primaries as a serious, newsworthy topic—even though a reporter for the Washington Post described the lawsuit, in passing, as “largely frivolous.” Other news commentators noted that the Post’s dismissive assessment of the lawsuit appeared to be “the first time” that the paper “has written anything at all about the sensational lawsuit.” (See Margaret Menge, “WaPo Claims $300 Million Class-Action Suit Against DNC ‘Frivolous,’” PoliZette, May 23, 2017; Menge further noted, “No mainstream media organization covered the April 25 hearing at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the media blackout of the case would be total and complete if not for the Internet and a handful of digital news outlets that initially covered the suit.” See also Caitlin Johnstone, “The Media Blackout on the DNC Lawsuit Proves That It is Nuclear,” Medium, May 13, 2017.)
Finally, as further indication of the politicized nature of news coverage on this topic, it is noteworthy that even Michael Sainato’s reporting—which has consistently used official documents, including the leaked DNC emails and courtroom transcripts, as primary sources—has been repeatedly labeled “opinion”—rather than straight news reporting—by his publisher, the Observer.
As Censored 2018 goes to print, the lawsuit appears to be moving forward to discovery. In that stage of the case, prominent DNC figures, including its former chair, Wasserman Schultz, would likely be called to testify in court on their actions and decisions during the Democratic primary.
Michael Sainato, “Wikileaks Proves Primary was Rigged: DNC Undermined Democracy,” Observer, July 22, 2016, http://observer.com/2016/07/wikileaks-proves-primary-was-rigged-dnc-undermined-democracy/.
Ruby Cramer, “DNC and Clinton Campaign Operations Started Merging Before Sanders Dropped Out,” BuzzFeed, July 27, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/rubycramer/dnc-and-clinton-campaign-operations-started-merging-before-s.
Joshua Holland, “What the Leaked E-mails Do and Don’t Tell Us About the DNC and Bernie Sanders,” Nation, July 29, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/what-the-leaked-e-mails-do-and-dont-tell-us-about-the-dnc-and-bernie-sanders/.
Michael Sainato, “DNC Lawyers Argue DNC Has Right to Pick Candidates in Back Rooms,” Observer, May 1, 2017, http://observer.com/2017/05/dnc-lawsuit-presidential-primaries-bernie-sanders-supporters/.
Student Researchers: Audrey Tuck (University of Vermont) and Tom Field (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluators: Rob Williams (University of Vermont) and Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)