Advance Notice: Briefs

State judge rejects motion by right-wing robocallers to toss case

By: - February 24, 2021 1:02 pm

Attorney General Dana Nessel at a press conference on voting, Oct. 28, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Judge Margaret Van Houten of the state’s Third Circuit Court has rejected a motion by far-right conspiracy theorists and political operatives Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl to quash information and dismiss the robocall intimidation case against the pair.   

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling, and look forward to the case continuing on to the next stage of the proceedings,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Tuesday through a statement.    

The case remains pending. Burkman, 54, and Wohl, 22, are accused of orchestrating a robocall last year during the run up to the U.S. presidential election to intimidate voters in Detroit and other cities with significant minority populations. Detroit is 79% Black. The defendants are each charged with: 

  • One count of election law – intimidating voters, a five-year felony 
  • One count of conspiracy to commit an election law violation, a five-year felony 
  • One count of using a computer to commit the crime of election law – intimidating voters, a seven-year felony
  • Using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, a seven-year felony

In their motion and oral arguments, Burkman and Wohl claimed their conduct did not violate Michigan’s voter intimidation law and that the robocalls were protected by the First Amendment. Van Houten rejected the argument. She ruled that the district court did not abuse its authority in binding over the case to Circuit Court because the robocall had the potential to deter people from voting by mail. She also rejected the free speech argument made by defendants. 

“I think that this does not qualify as … a violation of the First Amendment in this context,” said Van Houten, who was appointed to the court in 2012 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. “Every statement has to be viewed in and of itself. It’s not expressing an opinion, it is stating information that is misleading at very least and possibly false …” 

Nessel’s office filed criminal charges on Oct. 1, alleging Burkman and Wohl attempted to deter voters from participating in the Nov. 3 general election by disseminating a robocall making a number of falsehoods and targeting specific areas, including Detroit and other major U.S. cities with significant minority populations. The robocalls were made in late August and went out to nearly 12,000 residents in the Detroit area.   

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.