County Must Pay Own Fees for Voting Act Win

     (CN) – An Alabama county cannot recover $2 million in attorney fees despite its victory in the Supreme Court, which struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
     U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington, D.C., denied Shelby County, Ala.’s motion for attorney fees last year, saying taxpayers should not be on the hook for the costly litigation.
     “Shelby County’s attorneys won an impressive victory before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bates wrote. “But as is true in most litigation, that victory came at a price. Shelby County and its attorneys, not the American taxpayer, must foot the bill.”
     The D.C. Circuit affirmed Tuesday, finding that Shelby County’s victory “did not advance any of the goals Congress meant to promote by making fees available.”
     In 2013, the county convinced the Supreme Court’s conservative majority that two major sections of the 1965 law were unconstitutional.
     Section 4 created a “coverage formula” defining areas with a history of racial discrimination based on voter tests and turnout from the 1960s and 1970s. Section 5 imposed a so-called “preclearance” requirement, which forced certain states and counties to seek approval from federal authorities before changing election procedures or district lines.
     The preclearance requirement was originally aimed at rooting out bias in areas with a history of race discrimination.
     In 2010, Shelby County filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5. It did not seek to bail out from the measures, as a Texas utility district had been allowed to do in 2009, but wanted the court to declare the sections unconstitutional.
     A group of voters in the county who supported the challenged provisions intervened on the government’s side.
     Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said conditions have changed so much in the past 50 years that the law’s “extraordinary measures” could no longer be justified.
     Shelby County further argued that the Voting Rights Act leaves room for a “reasonable attorney’s fee” for the prevailing party of “any action or proceeding to enforce the voting guarantees of the 14th or 15th Amendment,” according to court records.
     But the D.C. Circuit disagreed Tuesday, finding that the county’s lawsuit did not enforce compliance with the Voting Rights Act and Congress did not intend to use fees to encourage invalidation of that law’s provisions.
     “The fact that Congress may have created a cause of action permitting such a suit does nothing to persuade us, in the face of these other considerations, that Congress also intended to use fees to encourage suits that sought to strike down its own carefully crafted enforcement program,” Judge John Bates wrote in appeals court’s 26-page opinion.
     Judge David Tatel wrote a short concurrence to say that he found “nothing at all ‘difficult’ about the question whether the county is even eligible for fees.” (Emphasis in original.)
     The county is eligible for fees if its suit sought to enforce the voting guarantees of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendment – but its suit instead sought to invalidate sections of the Voting Rights Act as an encroachment on Tenth Amendment rights.
     “The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments protect not state autonomy, but rather individual rights ‘against state denial or invasion,'” Tatel wrote.
     When Congress oversteps the limit of its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it treads on states’ rights and violates the Tenth Amendment, as the Supreme Court found. But that does not make Shelby County eligible to recover fees, Tatel said.
     “Shelby County brought this case to enforce the federalism ‘guarantees’ of the Tenth Amendment, not the ‘voting guarantees’ of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendment. Shelby County is thus ineligible for attorneys’ fees,” the judge wrote.

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