WICHITA, Kan. — A federal judge imposed on Wednesday more than $26,000 in sanctions against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as punishment for his "contemptuous behavior" during a voting rights case that challenged the state's proof-of-citizenship registration law.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson found Kobach in contempt in April stemming from a 2016 preliminary injunction. The decision handed down Wednesday specified the amount of attorney fees and expenses awarded after considering arguments from the parties.
Robinson ruled in June that Kansas cannot require documentary proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote, finding such laws violate the constitutional right to vote. That decision struck down the Kansas proof-of-citizenship registration law and made permanent the earlier injunction that had temporarily blocked it.
In issuing the latest sanctions, Robinson said Kobach failed to ensure local election officials sent voter registration postcards to people who registered when applying for a Kansas driver's license or when using a federal form, regardless of documentary proof of citizenship, after she issued her initial order. She also noted that until recently the county election manual advised local election officials that people needed to submit citizenship paperwork to register to vote.
Kobach did not respond to cellphone, text, and email messages left with his spokeswoman, and his cellphones were not accepting any more messages.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project, said Kobach remains the only person for whom he's sought a contempt citation during a federal lawsuit. He said Kobach had engaged in "willful bad behavior."
"The court sent a message that it's unacceptable to defy court orders, as Mr. Kobach has done, unacceptable to give voters incomplete or misleading information, which Secretary Kobach has done," Ho said. "The whole purpose of fines like this is to deter conduct like that."
Ho added: "Something I've learned from this case is that Secretary Kobach does not own up to his behavior and take responsibility for it."
Robinson wrote in her ruling that the services provided by the attorneys representing the voters in the case were "undoubtedly multiplied" by Kobach's conduct that led to the contempt finding.
Instead of responding to the ACLU's initial efforts to informally resolve the compliance issues, Kobach insisted for months that he need not comply at all. Almost five months later, Kobach took the position that he had taken the very compliance measures he initially disclaimed. That "needless gamesmanship" led to another round of letters, meetings, written filings and ultimately a three-hour contempt hearing in March, according to the decision.
"The Court will award the reasonable value of counsel's services directly caused by Defendant's contemptuous behavior," Robinson wrote.
Robinson awarded $24,658 in attorneys' fees and $1,557 in expenses as a sanction for the contempt found by the court in its April order.
The amount of sanctions fell short of the more than $50,000 initially sought by the ACLU after the judge reduced the claim due to lack of details in records, the excessive number of attorneys working on the tasks and duplication of work.
As for the reduction in the ACLU's proposal, Ho said the original amount was calculated based on the time ACLU attorneys spent on their contempt motion. He said in such cases, attorneys typically will reduce the totals before the judge considers it, but the ACLU decided to let the judge decide the issue.