A fundamentalist, Florida-based organization is using an unusual tactic to support President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim ban: spamming federal judges with thousands of emails.
The Florida Family Association has launched a campaign to have supporters flood the inboxes of the judges on the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals, asking them to re-instate Trump’s second executive order that barred immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries.
The 4th Circuit court in May is expected to hear arguments in International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, one of the federal lawsuits challenging Muslim ban 2.0. U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang was one of the federal judges to put Trump’s second ban on hold nationwide in March; the government has appealed Judge Chuang’s ruling to the 4th Circuit.
Many organizations that want to weigh in on the Muslim ban file legal briefs with the courts outlining their support for or opposition to the ban. Americans United intends to file a brief in IRAP v. Trump later this month, as we have in several other cases challenging the Muslim ban, along with filing a direct lawsuit titled UMAA v. Trump. The legal brief we will file in the 4th Circuit is called a “friend-of-the-court” brief and is intended to provide the court with additional perspective to make its important decision.
The Florida Family Association went a different route: On March 27, the organization began asking people to spam the judges. As of April 5, FFA founder and president David Caton estimated 7,500 emails had been sent to each judge, according to The National Law Journal.
Somehow, spamming judges doesn’t strike me as the best method to get them to agree with you. In fact, FFA now notes on its website that the 4th Circuit has begun blocking emails from FFA’s server. And Patricia S. Connor, clerk for the 4th Circuit, on April 4 issued a rare memo to lawyers involved in the case alerting them that the judges were receiving the emails.
“You cannot communicate with a judge outside the presence of the case record itself,” she told The National Law Journal.
Courtrooms are where judges listen to legal arguments, not through spam emails.
Caton doesn’t see it that way. He told the journal: “We feel there is a flavor that is missing in most courts, which is, what is really the will of the American public?”
But catering to “the will” of the people (here, really just some of the people) is not the role of the judiciary – it’s the role of elected legislators. It’s commonplace for lawmakers to hear from constituents as controversial legislative actions are being considered. So far this year, representatives have been flooded with comments regarding the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the proposed overhaul of the Affordable Care Act and other issues.
Judges are tasked with interpreting laws and considering whether legislators’ actions are legal and constitutional – regardless of whether the decisions are popular.
But it sounds like email campaigns are all the Florida Family Association knows how to do. This is how the organization describes itself on its website: “Florida Family Association is a national organization that is made up of tens of thousands of online subscribers across America who share in the same goal of defending American values. These supporters send close to two million emails every month to corporate and public officials associated with issues posted on this web site.”
The issues on FFA’s website and Facebook page seem to be exclusively anti-Islam: criticism of Nike’s plan to introduce a hijab for female athletes, calls to have the Council on American-Islamic Relations declared a terrorist group, and requests for advertisers to stop doing business with The Huffington Post because it writes about Islamophobia.
According to a 2011 profile in The New York Times, Caton set up FFA as a breakaway group from the American Family Association (AFA) because he thought AFA, one of the nation’s most strident Religious Right groups, was not anti-gay enough.
“For the first 15 years of his public life, Mr. Caton aimed almost entirely at homosexuals,” The Times noted, pointing to crusades against a Gay Straight Alliance at a Florida high school, marriage for same-sex couples and an openly gay lawyer in Florida’s attorney general’s office.
The Times noted FFA was largely a “one-man war,” and that still appears to be the case: according to 2015 federal tax filings, the non-profit boasts one paid employee – Caton. FFA’s mission: “Educate people on what they can do to defend, protect and promote traditional, biblical values.”
The Times article noted FFA’s tactics can backfire. Barbara Thornton, the principal of the Florida school whose GSA he attacked, noted: “We found it a good thing he brought the issue out. It ended up with the student population at large supporting the Gay Straight Alliance because of the attacks from outside.”
A legal expert told the The National Law Journal FFA may run into the same trouble with the judicial email campaign: “I can't think of a better way to make a judge mad than to flood his or her email box with a bunch of advocacy statements,” said Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution.
While Caton and FFA send emails, Americans United will continue preparing legal briefs to present to the courts how Trump’s executive order is the un-American Muslim ban he promised on the campaign trail, unconstitutionally singling out one group of people – Muslims – for disfavor based solely on their faith. Click here to learn more about our work and for updates in these cases.