WASHINGTON (CN) - Anti-abortion protesters who won an injunction against a policy in South Carolina against graphic signs may deserve attorneys' fees, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Columbia Christians for Life first came up against the policy in 2005 while demonstrating at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, S.C. About 20 members of the group, including Steven Lefemine, were carrying pictures of aborted fetuses.
After getting complaints about the protests, a county police officer told Lefemine to discard the signs or face a ticket for disturbing the peace.
Though Lefemine told the officer that the orders violated his First Amendment rights, he disbanded the protest. His attorney warned Greenwood sheriff Dan Wideman the following year that they would "pursue all available legal remedies" if the police interfered with another protest they had planned.
Wideman's chief deputy, Mike Frederick, still insisted that the police would not treat the protest any differently.
Fearing police action, the activists chose not to protest in Greenwood for the next two years. Lefemine filed suit in the name of his group, and a federal judge permanently enjoined the defendants from restricting Lefemine's display of graphic signs. Finding that the county officials had qualified immunity, however, the judge refused to award nominal damages. The court also found that the injunction did not make Lefemine a prevailing party to warrant attorneys' fees.
The 4th Circuit affirmed in March 2012, but the Supreme Court vacated that decision in a summary order Monday.
"A plaintiff 'prevails,' we have held, 'when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff,'" the decision states, quoting precedent. "And we have repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test.
"Under these established standards, Lefemine was a prevailing party."
"The District Court held that the defendants had violated Lefemine's rights and enjoined them from engaging in similar conduct in the future," the judges added. "Contrary to the Fourth Circuit's view, that ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties' relationship. Before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner. So when the District Court 'ordered [d]efendants to comply with the law,' the relief given - as in the usual case involving such an injunction - supported the award of attorney's fees."
Since further adjudication of the matter could uncover other grounds on which the police officers could contest liability for the attorneys' fees, however, the court emphasized that it is not making a guarantee for Lefemine.
The activist could appear before the Supreme Court again soon in trying to revive claims over a Madison Square Garden protest that police quashed. The 2nd Circuit threw out a lawsuit Lefemine filed in August 2012.
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