The ruling means that a defamation case against Rudolph W. Giuliani, stemming from his role in seeking to overturn the 2020 election, can proceed to a trial where damages will be considered.
A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Rudolph W. Giuliani was liable for defaming two Georgia election workers by repeatedly declaring that they had mishandled ballots while counting votes in Atlanta during the 2020 election.
The ruling by the judge, Beryl A. Howell in Federal District Court in Washington, means that the defamation case against Mr. Giuliani, a central figure in former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to remain in power after his election loss, can proceed to trial on the narrow question of how much, if any, damages he will have to pay the plaintiffs in the case.
Judge Howell’s decision came a little more than a month after Mr. Giuliani conceded in two stipulations in the case that he had made false statements when he accused the election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, of manipulating ballots while working at the State Farm Arena for the Fulton County Board of Elections.
Mr. Giuliani’s legal team has sought to clarify that he was not admitting to wrongdoing, and that his stipulations were solely meant to short circuit the costly process of producing documents and other records to Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss so that he could move toward dismissing the allegations outright.
Although the stipulations essentially conceded that his statements about Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss were false, Mr. Giuliani has continued to argue that his attacks on them were protected by the First Amendment.
But Judge Howell, complaining that Mr. Giuliani’s stipulations “hold more holes than Swiss cheese,” took the proactive step of declaring him liable for “defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy and punitive damage claims.”
In a statement, Mr. Giuliani’s political adviser, Ted Goodman, slammed the opinion as “a prime example of the weaponization of our justice system, where the process is the punishment.” He added that “this decision should be reversed, as Mayor Giuliani is wrongly accused of not preserving electronic evidence.”
Judge Howell’s decision to effectively skip the fact-finding stage of the defamation case and move straight to an assessment of damages came after a protracted struggle by Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss to force Mr. Giuliani to turn over evidence they believed they deserved as part of the discovery process.
In her ruling, Judge Howell accused Mr. Giuliani of paying only “lip service” to his discovery obligations “by failing to take reasonable steps to preserve or produce” reams of relevant information. His repeated excuses and attempts to paint himself as the victim in the case, the judge went on, “thwarted” the two women’s “procedural rights to obtain any meaningful discovery.”
“Donning a cloak of victimization may play well on a public stage to certain audiences, but in a court of law this performance has served only to subvert the normal process of discovery in a straightforward defamation case,” Judge Howell wrote.
The remedy for all of this, she added, was that Mr. Giuliani would have to pay nearly $90,000 in legal fees Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss had incurred and would suffer a default judgment on the central issue of whether he had defamed the women.
The lawsuit filed by Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss in December 2021 was among the first to be brought by individual election workers who found themselves targets of criticism and conspiracy theories promoted by right-wing politicians and media figures who claimed that Mr. Trump had won the election. The two women sued other defendants, including the One America News Network and some of its top officials, but ultimately reached settlements with everyone except Mr. Giuliani.
The campaign of harassment against Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss came after Mr. Giuliani and others wrongly accused them of pulling thousands of fraudulent ballots from a suitcase in their vote-counting station and illegally feeding them through voting machines. The story of that campaign was featured prominently in a racketeering indictment against Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani and 17 others that was filed this month by the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga.
The indictment accused Mr. Giuliani of falsely telling state officials in Georgia that Ms. Freeman had committed election crimes in an effort to persuade them to “unlawfully change the outcome” of the race on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Other members of the criminal enterprise, the indictment said, “traveled from out of state to harass Ms. Freeman, intimidate her and solicit her to falsely confess to election crimes that she did not commit.”
Last year, Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss — who are mother and daughter — appeared as witnesses at a public hearing of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 and related what happened after Mr. Giuliani amplified the false claims about them.
Although Fulton County and Georgia officials immediately debunked the accusations, Mr. Giuliani kept promoting them, ultimately comparing the women — who are Black — to drug dealers and calling during a hearing with Georgia state legislators for their homes to be searched.
Mr. Trump invoked Ms. Freeman’s name 18 times during a phone call with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, on Jan. 2, 2021. In the call, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Raffensperger to help him “find” 11,800 votes — enough to swing the results in Georgia from the winner, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I’ve lost my name, and I’ve lost my reputation,” Ms. Freeman testified to the House panel, adding as her voice rose with emotion, “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?”
Mr. Giuliani has blamed his failure to produce documents to Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss on his own financial woes. Facing an array of civil and criminal cases, Mr. Giuliani has racked up about $3 million in legal expenses, a person familiar with the matter has said.
He has sought a lifeline from Mr. Trump, but the former president has largely rebuffed requests to cover Mr. Giuliani’s legal bills. Mr. Trump’s political action committee did pay $340,000 that Mr. Giuliani owed to a company that was helping him produce records in various cases, but he had still sought to avoid turning over documents to Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, prompting the judge’s ruling on Wednesday.
The defamation suit by the women is only one of several legal problems Mr. Giuliani faces.
In addition to the Georgia indictment, Mr. Giuliani is facing a defamation suit from Dominion Voting Systems, which has accused him of “a viral disinformation campaign” to spread false claims that the company was part of a complex plot to flip votes away from Mr. Trump during the 2020 election.
Last month, a legal ethics committee in Washington said that Mr. Giuliani should be disbarred for his “unparalleled” attempts to help Mr. Trump overturn the election.
He was also included as an unnamed co-conspirator in a federal indictment filed against Mr. Trump this month by the special counsel, Jack Smith, accusing the former president of plotting to illegally reverse the results of the election.