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Judge Refuses to Let Jacob Wohl Delay His Civil Case Until His Criminal Prosecutions Are Over


Hard-right hoaxers Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman had wanted to pause a civil suit accusing them of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act through robocalls targeting Black voters until their criminal cases over the same conduct had ended. A federal judge shot down that effort on Monday, finding that such an indefinite delay could harm the integrity of future elections.

“It is also important to note that elections occur periodically,” U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero wrote in a 14-page ruling on Monday. “By the time defendants’ criminal proceedings have concluded, countless elections may have taken place.”

The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which brought a lawsuit in Manhattan Federal Court against the alleged fraudsters in late October, asked for the temporary restraining order in a lawsuit accusing Wohl and Burkman of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. In October, Judge Marrero found those claims likely to prevail in a decision blasting the men’s campaign of “electoral terror.”

“The right to vote embodies the very essence of democracy,” the judge wrote late last year. “Absent free and fair elections uninfluenced by fear, the underpinnings of democratic rule would crumble. The United States Constitution, as enforced by Congress and the courts, enshrines these principles.”

The judge made the parallels between the KKK’s racist campaigns and those he found the hoaxers likely engaged in explicit in his ruling.

“In the current version of events, the means [Burkman and Wohl] use to intimidate voters, though born of fear and similarly powered by hate, are not guns, torches, burning crosses, and other dire methods perpetrated under the cover of white hoods,” Marrero wrote back then. “Rather, [Burkman and Wohl] carry out electoral terror using telephones, computers, and modern technology adapted to serve the same deleterious ends.”

As a result of that ruling, Wohl and Burkman were forced to send out a new round of robocalls informing the recipients of the original messages that a federal judge found them discriminatory and illegal. The men tried to argue that the order interfered with their rights to a fair trial trial on criminal charges brought by prosecutors in Ohio and Michigan based on the same messages.

For months since that ruling, Wohl and Burkman repeatedly tried to put the civil suit on ice, arguing that allowing the case to proceed on parallel tracks with the criminal prosecution could jeopardize their Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination. Those accused of crimes cannot be forced to testify, and the decision to remain silent cannot be used against them in a criminal trial. That is not the case in civil litigation, in which adverse inferences can be drawn for those who do not cooperate with discovery.

Calling that concern “entirely speculative,” Marrero noted that the men have not been hit with any discovery requests presenting such a dilemma.

Turning to the public interest, Judge Marrero emphasized that quickly addressing those claims will set the goal posts for future elections.

“Prompt resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims will further clarify the acceptable bounds of election-related conduct for activists, voters, and other interested parties, thereby promoting the integrity of future elections,” the judge wrote.

Wohl and Burkman’s attorney David Schwartz, from the firm Gerstman Schwartz, told Law&Crime that his clients intend to appeal the decision.

The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation declined to comment.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."