For months, there’s been widespread speculation about whether the fuse for the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot was lit from the halls of Chapman University’s Law School, with a former dean pushing a widely discredited legal argument to block the 2020 election results.

This week, U.S. District Judge David Carter made a pretty good argument that it was. 

On Monday morning, Carter issued a scathing decision against former Chapman Law School Dean John Eastman – opting to release about 100 emails reviewed by Carter himself and sent by the former Chapman law professor when he was employed by the university and publicly coordinating with legal efforts to help former President Trump overturn the outcome of the 2020 election.

For months, Eastman fought to stop Chapman University from complying with a subpoena from Congressional investigators, who want to study the role Eastman played in the events leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot.

On Monday, Carter shot Eastman down.

And called him out. 

“Based on the evidence, the Court finds that it is more likely than not that President Trump and Dr. Eastman dishonestly conspired to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” wrote Carter Monday in a decision that got almost as many headlines as the Oscar’s slap over the weekend. 

Click here to read Carter’s full decision.

In an unusual move, Carter has also publicly posted many of the key court filings in this case, which can be seen here.

Changing Times?

Eastman – who according to news reports won’t appeal Carter’s decision –  argued in court documents that he was celebrated at Chapman back when he helped former President George W. Bush in his capacity as a professor during election recount battles in 2000.

But university officials publicly disputed that in court during their months-long efforts to comply with congressional investigators who have been after nearly 20,000 emails sent by Eastman using Chapman servers and his university email address. 

Indeed, in court hearings over the email issue, Chapman lawyers went to great lengths to describe a university that discourages its professors from getting involved in politics.

Yet in his decision, Carter pointed to Eastman’s tenure appointment after his work for Bush. 

He also noted that the law school dean had allowed Eastman to use the university address in his correspondence. 

“Dr. Eastman’s prior work on the 2000 election was considered ‘scholarly’ by Chapman’s Rank and Tenure Committee, which noted Dr. Eastman’s ‘status as one of a very few law professors viewed as expert in the area of election law’,” wrote Carter., adding that “The Tenure Committee further stated that ‘[i]t was in the Law School’s interest that Professor Eastman pursue this opportunity to the fullest.’”

Carter continued.

“Moreover, Chapman blurred the lines between authorized and unauthorized work in practice,” he wrote.

Carter specifically pointed to the law school dean, questioning the direction offered to Eastman.

“Dr. Eastman describes a 2020 meeting with the then-Dean of Chapman’s law school about a proposed post-election filing on behalf of President Trump. According to Dr. Eastman, the Dean requested that he remove the “c/o Chapman University” line from his signature block on the brief, but did not ask him to remove Chapman’s address or Dr. Eastman’s university email or phone number.” 

Carter noted in his decision that “Critically, the Dean did not express any concerns about Dr. Eastman filing the brief on behalf of President Trump or using Chapman email for his representation, and did not raise any of the claims of unauthorized use that Chapman now asserts in this case.” 

Carter also highlighted the arguments by Chapman’s lawyer, noting the school’s position that “IRS rules prohibit faculty from using university resources to support political candidates, which Chapman’s President publicly reiterated in the context of Dr. Eastman’s work on December 10, 2020.”

“But as Dr. Eastman notes, the IRS prohibits ‘[c]ontributions to political campaign funds or public statements . . . in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,’ but does not mention post-election litigation for campaigns,” Carter found. 

Carter also called out past practice at Chapman. 

“Chapman’s endorsement of Dr. Eastman’s 2000 post-election litigation and the lack of IRS enforcement against other law professors representing candidates in post-election litigation suggest that Dr. Eastman’s work on behalf of President Trump was not in violation of IRS rules,” Carter wrote.

It’s ironic that Chapman lawyers told Carter that university professors shouldn’t use university resources to support political candidates. 

I remember when former Communications Dean Lisa Sparks – who is married to Chapman President Daniele Struppa – was running for Congress in 2020 and drew criticism for failing for months to take a leave of absence from her position at the school (something called out publicly by Chapman’s school newspaper, the Panther, and in this column that year).

Voice of OC has a journalism partnership with Chapman University and I often work with journalism students as an adjunct professor of public affairs and investigative journalism.

Eastman’s high-profile position at Chapman as a former dean and tenured professor led former President Trump to publicly praise him the morning of Jan. 6  as “one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country,” one who according to the emails reviewed and released Monday by Carter, tried to plot a legal way out from having to certify what many Republicans – but no court – saw as a stolen election.

In his 40-page decision, Carter wrote that “At most, this case is a warning about the dangers of ‘legal theories’ gone wrong, the powerful abusing public platforms, and desperation to win at all costs.”

The U.S. District Court judge said the situation could set a dangerous precedent for the country. 

“If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution. If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself,” Carter wrote.

Eastman attracted Trump’s praise because of his legal theories that seemed to allow for scenarios where the vice president in his administrative role as a member of the Senate could reject electoral votes, Carter wrote.

Carter summarized the marriage that ultimately swept up Chapman, noting in his decision that Trump’s Jan. 6 efforts were “a coup in search of a legal theory.”

And Trump found that legal pry bar at Chapman University. 

Yet many attorneys, including two Voice of OC board members – attorney and board chair Wylie Aitken and UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky – question how Eastman could credibly make such arguments while calling himself a constitutional expert. 

“Judge Carter’s opinion is exactly right as to the law,” said Chemerinsky, a noted constitutional scholar, after reading Carter’s decision on Monday. 

“Eastman’s efforts to undermine the election are unprecedented,” said Chemerinksy, who often appeared with Eastman to debate constitutional matters. 

“This was the first effort at a coup in American history,” he said, adding that “Judge Carter rightly ruled that Eastman can’t now hide the evidence of his crimes.”

Both Aitken, who has also served as the chair for Chapman University’s Board of Trustees and Chemerinsky – who was the founding dean at UCI’s law school in Orange County – have both filed complaints against Eastman with the state bar. 

On Monday, Carter added his voice to those who say Eastman’s arguments weren’t even close to passing muster when it comes to the law. 

“Dr. Eastman’s views on the Electoral Count Act are not, as he argues, a ‘good faith interpretation’ of the law; they are a partisan distortion of the democratic process. His plan was driven not by preserving the Constitution, but by winning the 2020 election,” Carter wrote. 

“The evidence shows that Dr. Eastman was aware that his plan violated the Electoral Count Act. Dr. Eastman likely acted deceitfully and dishonestly each time he pushed an outcome-driven plan that he knew was unsupported by the law.”

Now, throughout the court proceedings, Eastman and his attorney, Charles Burnham, stood behind his questioning of the Electoral Count Act. 

Yet in his ruling, Carter pointed to comments by Eastman himself that his legal reasoning would not likely pass muster in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In a meeting the day before the riot with Vice President Pence’s counsel and chief of staff, Eastman conceded that his arguments “violated the Electoral Count Act on four separate grounds,” Carter wrote in his ruling, citing testimony by Pence’s counsel Greg Jacob.

Jacob would later make headlines after publication of his email exchange with Eastman as the riot was unfolding, telling him, “thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege.”

Carter also noted that Eastman conceded “his legal theories would be rejected ‘9-0’ by the Supreme Court.”

The backlash at Chapman from Eastman’s colleagues was also swift, with strenuous calls for him to be removed from the law school. Ultimately, Chapman President Struppa later announced that Eastman would step down and retire.  

While Carter made it clear that he didn’t think Eastman’s theory landed in the ballpark of the law, he was equally clear that Eastman’s position at Chapman gave legitimacy to efforts to overturn the election.

“Dr. Eastman represented clients while employed as a law professor at Chapman University, and he used his official university email to communicate with those clients. When President Trump and members of his campaign referenced Dr. Eastman in public, they frequently highlighted his position as a law professor. Since Dr. Eastman’s work for President Trump was tied to his position as a ‘preeminent constitutional scholar,’;” Carter wrote on Monday. 

It was, in essence, an effective fuse.

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