KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bart Budetti thinks Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and his assistants are in over their heads and wasting U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson's time.
A 75-year-old retired attorney who once found himself opposite Kobach in a legal dispute over a food bank, Budetti watched a trial unfold last week with daily confrontations and colorful references to a bazooka, red herring, icebergs, Gmail usage and the type of sandwich that can be used as fertilizer.
Kobach is defending himself and the state's voter registration law in a case that challenges his ability to prove claims of widespread fraud. Video of previously sealed testimony from Kobach's deposition last year revealed he prepared for the eventuality of losing the case.
Other memorable moments in the trial, which resumes Monday and is in jeopardy of lasting longer than its scheduled Tuesday conclusion, involve Robinson's frequent scolding of Kobach and his assistants. Astonished by their performance, Budetti said he felt sorry for Kobach deputy Garrett Roe and chief legal counsel Sue Becker.
"It was just mind-boggling," Budetti said. "Those people are not trial lawyers. They may be doing their best, but they obviously don't know what they're doing."
Kobach spokeswoman Samantha Poetter said Roe and Becker both have previous trial experience.
The performance by Kobach's team could have an impact on his campaign for governor, said Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty, who likened Kobach's combat with Robinson over his interest in illegal voting to former Attorney General Phill Kline's interest in abortion.
Both push controversial but popular positions within the Republican party, Beatty said, making it unlikely to factor into the primary race. In a general election, however, opponents could suggest personal information from documents required in voter registrations isn't safe with Kobach.
Additionally, attack ads from political action groups could use his performance in this trial "to try to undermine his competence," Beatty said.
Robinson has admonished Kobach and his team for trying to introduce new evidence at 10:45 p.m. the night before the trial began, as well as repeated attempts to introduce evidence through testimony. On opening day, she instructed Becker to adhere to the rules of “evidence 101.”
As Robinson admonished Becker, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney let Becker know she had inadvertently provided ACLU with her own notes on a document.
The judge refused to let Kobach ask a witness about being followed by a film crew. She blocked an effort to use deposition from someone not included on his witness list, and admonished him for not providing underlying documents to the ACLU for a spreadsheet showing examples of questionable voters.
The ACLU later pointed out the witness who prepared the spreadsheet had listened to earlier testimony and read news stories about the trial, unaware of Robinson's order to attorneys that all witnesses be sequestered.
At one point, Robinson stopped Roe to offer step-by-step explanation for the proper way to ask a witness questions.
She halted court proceedings Thursday afternoon after a heated exchange with Kobach over an attempt to introduce updated numbers from the state's database of registered voters. If changes were important, Robinson said, he could have updated the two-year-old figures at any time before the pretrial deadline.
"We're not going to have a trial by ambush or surprise here," Robinson said.
Becker shouted over the judge to lodge a complaint of ACLU dishonesty, which resulted in Robinson telling her she was "out of line."
In another deadline dispute, hashed out in the days leading up to the trial, a Robinson ruling accused Kobach of trying to sandbag the court.
As testimony resumed Friday morning, Roe apologized for Thursday's exchange and told Robinson he was "not trying to test the court's patience." Roe then attempted to explain to her how judicial notice works, repeating the attempt to introduce updated numbers, and was again told he was "out of order."
Budetti called the performance "incredible and offensive," bringing to mind a story from Kobach's time on the Overland Park City Council.
After working as a Broward County Court judge in Florida for nine years, Budetti spent two decades in the Overland Park city attorney office. Kobach served on the council from 1999 to 2001, when he left for a White House fellowship.
A church in Kobach's ward wanted to open a food bank, Budetti said, but neighbors were concerned about the prospect of poor people from Kansas City scoping out their neighborhood. Budetti's research of federal law discovered churches were protected from zoning rules, but he said Kobach presented a legal memo saying the council could block the church's efforts.
Ultimately, Budetti said, the council approved the food bank with only Kobach dissenting. At the end of the meeting, Budetti said, Kobach complained his peers had rejected the opinion of a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Still, Budetti thinks of Kobach as a "nice, young guy."
In an email Saturday, Poetter explained testimony by Bryan Caskey, the state's elections director, who was unable to answer a question from Robinson about whether Kobach's office complied with her order to send postcards letting suspended voters know they could participate in upcoming elections.
"Kobach does not send the postcards nor does our office," Poetter said. "The counties have been directed to send them, but he cannot say under oath if he did or didn't. That is why he said he would need to check with the 105 counties, which is not the same as saying he didn't know if Kobach had."
Last week's trial was covered by reporters for National Public Radio, Talking Points Memo, ProPublica and Huffington Post. In an interview after finishing his testimony, Caskey said he hopes the trial's attention will encourage more people to vote.
"Strictly from a voting process," Caskey said, "I just hope people stay engaged."