Victor in Big Voting Case Must Pay Attorneys’ Fees

     (CN) – Shelby County, Ala., lost its bid for $2 million in attorneys’ fees despite its “impressive victory” in getting the Supreme Court last year to strike down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
     U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington, D.C., denied on Wednesday the county’s motion for attorneys’ fees, 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.”
     Last June, the county convinced the 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 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.”
     Judge Bates said the law allows a fee award to the winner, so long as the underlying lawsuit could be described as an “action or proceeding to enforce the voting guarantees of the 14th or 15th Amendment.”
     Under this “neutral interpretation” of the fee-shifting provision, Shelby County is eligible for — but not entitled to — attorneys’ fees, Bates ruled.
     He noted that the fee award is meant “to encourage private attorneys general to bring lawsuits vindicating individual voting rights.”
     “Shelby County does not fit that statutory paradigm, so it cannot recover attorney’s fees unless it meets a higher bar: the Christiansburg standard, under which it may recover fees only if it can show that the position taken by opponents was frivolous or unreasonable,” Bates wrote, referring to the standard established in the 1978 Supreme Court decision Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC.
     “And because Shelby County cannot make that showing, it is not entitled to a discretionary award of attorney’s fees,” the judge concluded.
     “To its credit, Shelby County does not argue that the United States (or defendant-intervenors) took a position in this case that was ‘frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,'” he added. “That concession was appropriate: this court, two judges on the D.C. Circuit, and four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the position advanced by the attorney general, and the challenged provisions of the VRA had been upheld in previous decisions of the Supreme Court.”

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