Question about “frivolous” legal defenses

The debates on abortion and the January 6 riots got me thinking about this. People have all kinds of sincerely held yet ridiculous beliefs, and I wondered what happens when some of them are taken to court. If it’s a matter of legal interpretation (like sovereign citizens, or people who want to argue their minority victim wasn’t actually human), then I can easily see how a court would reject it.

But what exactly are the grounds a court would use to dismiss the claim of an abortion doctor killer that they were acting in defense of a human life? I have to imagine it would be rejected, because I can’t see any court allowing defense witnesses to argue that the fetus was a full blown human life, but wouldn’t the court be definitively saying that it doesn’t believe the fetus is human? With the 1/6 rioters, what if one legit argued that he was acting in defense of the nation and brought in witnesses to the “fact” that Trump won the election? How does the court disallow such a defense without taking the “opposite” stand?

Or, in a perhaps less clear cut example, with all the anti-transgender laws being enacted and fought, has a party ever tried to argue that their law is justified due to the “fact” that gender assigned at birth is a biological fact? Would disallowing such a defense make any statement about that basic claim?

Hope I’m getting across what I’m wondering here…

Is there maybe one specific scenario you’d like people to focus on? Because you’ve thrown down a broad range of topics, ranging to questions of fact (who won the election, and—perhaps a legal question too—does it even matter for the purposes of a particular trial?), questions of law (is a fetus human life, and does all human life have legal personhood?), and then constitutional questions of permissible state action (is it within the power of the state to discriminate based on biological gender? Or to affirmatively disregard biological gender?).

I could see each of these having a completely different approach to them.

IANAJD, but I do know a bit about the practice of law. You can attempt to argue whatever ridiculous position you want. But you run the risk of having an opposing counsel who is rational, sane, and more compelling arguing against you to a jury that may not be completely composed of morons.

To be effective, your argument generally needs to be supported by relevant statutes and case law. Thinking your party won the election isn’t a defense. Thinking your party won the election because you are legally considered insane and incompetent to stand trial might be.

I’m not sure that’s true. Or at the very least, you can’t seek to admit whatever ridiculous evidence you want, even if you are allowed to make a ridiculous argument. So if your argument is, for example, that you were justified in breaking into the Capitol on January 6 (an affirmative defense) because you genuinely believed Trump won the election, but the prosecutor is able to argue (successfully) that it’s actually *irrelevant who won the election (because reasons), then the judge might just say no evidence relating to the winner or loser of the election will be permitted as it would not be relevant. Evidence needs to be relevant to be admissible. I think. IANAL.

*ETA: Or at the very least that it’s not relevant who won the election, or even what the accused believed to be the election outcome, but rather it is only relevant what a reasonable person would have believed.

Relevant, I think, is the so-called gay panic defense:

It was used unsuccessfully by Aaron McKinney’s lawyers in the trial of the murder of Matthew Shepard.

While it doesn’t require the court to concede that gay people have committed any kind of assault or other crime against the defendant, it does require that the defendant perceived such a thing, and that this is in some way reduces their culpability.

I’d suppose the same is true of your examples above. It may be possible to bolster a defense by arguing that the defendant perceived that something is true (i.e., that abortion is murder) without actually taking any stand on it.

Bannon and his lawyers found out just a couple of weeks ago that that’s not correct. The trial judge ruled out all sorts of “defences” that were designed to turn a relatively straightforward case into a political campaign stop.

Defences have to have a grounding in the law and the facts of the case. If not, they’ll be ruled out of order.

No, you are correct. There are rules regarding how and what evidence can be submitted.

But AFAIK, you can make whatever case you want in your opening statements (again, within the rules of the court). Ideally it should be supported by your witnesses and collaborating evidence.

IANAL, but I seem to recall that argument is specifically not permitted in an opening statement. That’s what the closing is for, and it would have to be supported by evidence.

It sounds like you’re talking about affirmative defenses, i.e. “I did it but I’m not legally guilty because X.” Some available affirmative defenses you might be thinking of include necessity, duress, self-defense, and defense of others. There are rules regarding the elements that must be established for each defense, and there are sometimes specific prohibitions against using certain defenses to certain crimes, e.g. you usually can’t use duress as a defense to murder.

It’s hard to get more specific than that without narrowing the question.

Not “ideally”. Try “actually”.

If you make arguments if your opening and don’t call evidence in support, the judge will instruct the jury to disregard that part of your opening and will not allow you to make that argument in closing. It highlights to the jury that you’re trying to mislead them, which is not a good thing when they enter deliberations.

ETA: I think you mean “corroborating evidence”?

In the courts I practise in, you can provide an outline of your case, the evidence you intend to call, and an outline of the legal issues that you expect the court will have to address. You’re entitled to give a high-level outline of how you see the case going, but not detailed argument.

IANAL, but…

Don’t they send the jury out of the room (or argue close to the bench so they cannot hear) when there is a disagreement about what evidence the sides want to produce?
I.e. you have to argue to the judge, without the jury, that - for example - you would like to prove your client was acting to save the republic from a stolen election. Then the judge will ask “what evidence do you provide to support that stolen election allegation?” Since no evidence has been presented in any court that sheds doubt on even one state’s results, what evidence can the defense promise to produce? The judge will say “without evidence, you cannot argue that line.”

Not sure where the legal logic goes if the person is under the misapprehension that they are acting legitimately, but then they are basically admitting what they did. IIRC the pizza parlour non-exist basement guy was not acquitted for threatening people with a gun while trying to “save children”. Basically “I meant well” is not a defense of innocence, it is simply an attempt to mitigate the degree of punishment.

Generally you have to inform the court and opposing counsel about affirmative defenses you plan to raise before you’re talking to the jury. And I took the OP’s question to be about the substantive basis for such a defense and how the judge decides whether to allow it, rather than the procedural details of how it’s argued. But I could be mistaken.

And the judge says that’s not a defence to assaulting police officers in the execution of their duty. Not a defence, can’t make submissions to the jury, can’t try to call evidence.

That’s essentially what Bannon seemed to be trying to do. The judge was having none of it. You can’t just make up what ever you want and say it’s a defence.

The way its said here is that the test is "that a reasonable person could have in their head that "… legal defense applied. It means assume that a reasonable person was the defendant.

I’d imagine that might be true for some of those situations (reasonable person standard). But in some it might just come down to a question of law: that is, never mind what a reasonable person might think, does the law actually allow such a defense? Or, even if the law does allow such a defense, do the facts the defendant would like to put forward, even if true, give rise to the defense asserted? I could see that being relevant in the abortion example. A key question might, for instance, be whether the jurisdiction where the crime occurred considers a fetus to be a legal person. The common law likely wouldn’t (at least it didn’t sixty years ago), which means there’d have to be some statute addressing not only the question of whether abortion is legal (because if it’s legal, then obviously you can’t gun someone down for being about to perform one), but also whether a fetus should be treated as a legal person. Because if a fetus isn’t a legal person, then some sort of “defense of others” style argument doesn’t really fly. And just because a jurisdiction might have criminalized abortion or providing an abortion, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gone out and declared a fetus to be a legal person in all relevant (to the scenario at hand) respects.

Anyway, if the law doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person, or better yet if abortions are legal and the law doesn’t consider a fetus to be a legal person, then it doesn’t really matter what a reasonable person might think, and so any evidence purely along those lines would be irrelevant (and likely not admissible). Nor would the argument be permitted. And I’d imagine the instructions to the jury, going into deliberations, could be written to emphasize that point (that it doesn’t matter what a reasonable person would think) if need be.

And then there’s a whole host of other questions that would arise, having more to do with the nuances of “self defense” or “defense of others” type of defenses, and the extent to which allowances for such a defense might vary in important ways across jurisdictions. But I don’t want to get into because (1) IANAL, and (2) none of it would necessarily port over to the other scenarios presented in the OP.

Well, yes, but that’s pretty much what we pay the courts to do. They are supposed to act as an objective standard, divorced from the emotional entanglements that the parties to the dispute may experience, so they can render a judgement, “Position X is supported by the facts/law/jurisprudence, Position Not X is not.”

You’re applying this to several controversial issues, because it feels “unfair” to tell one side they’re full of shit, but really, these are just the extremes. They differ only in intensity of feeling, not in significant substance, from other issues. I mean, are you worried that the courts are dismissive of a pedophile’s arguments that they should be allowed to molest kids? Of course not.

I don’t think “defense of others” would work in killing a doctor who performs abortions, even where abortion is illegal, because you have to be defending a specific person in the moment. You’d have to kill the doctor just as he was about to abort a specific fetus/embryo/blastocyst. If your argument is simply that “You know he performs abortions,” that’s not enough. You can know that someone is planning to kill someone else, and has killed other people in the past, and have unassailable evidence, but it is not up to you to execute them. You go to the police with your evidence, and let them handle the situation.

Plus basically the law says, generally in most states (so far), until a person is born alive (usual test, drew a breath) they are not a person. Therefore, self (or for others’) defense argument cannot apply. Not to mention it would not apply if there was not a clear and immediate danger at that time, as Rikvah points out.

Not to mention, response must be proportional - if someone is committing a crime, you could try a citizen’s arrest. You could try blocking their way to the crime scene. You could ask bystanders for help. Was there evidence the doctor would respond with lethal force if you tried to arrest him? Why was a gun necessary?

Exactly. He was issued a subpoena by Congress. He refused. How do you argue against that? He would have to provide precedent and law that supports his position.
Congress does not have the authority? The laws of the land explicitly say it does. Can you point to any part of the law denying that right to congress?
Congress had no right to subpoena him? The laws of the land say it does. Same argument…
He has a right to refuse to obey? They laws also say that is not true. Etc.
There is nothing available to refute that.
The defense of “executive privilege” is one that the executive alone can assert for his minions. Biden did not. Plus, it does not apply to criminal acts.
Executive privilege applies to immediate members of the white house staff only. Bannon was not at the time, hadn’t been for years.
There is no angle of the constitution that could supersede these laws.

At some point, the judge will (did) quickly get tired of stupid, and simply say “quit trying to argue the law does not mean what it means.”

Yes. For a defence to even be raised you need to make it a life issue at trial. And a frivolous defence by its very definition can never be a live issue.