Judge denies attorneys’ fees for Shelby County in voting rights case

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 WASHINGTON — Shelby County won the case that led the Supreme Court to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act, but that victory doesn’t mean the federal government should pay the county’s lawyers, a judge ruled last week.

    Washington D.C.-based lawyers for Shelby County had asked for $2 million in fees for the team that pursued the case all the way to the nation’s highest court. The case had challenged the Voting Rights Act’s formula that was used to determine which parts of the country needed to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to their election procedures. The court found the formula unconstitutional.

    Its ruling ended the “pre-clearance” process for Alabama and several other states, a historic shift in how the federal government enforces anti-discrimination laws meant to protect minority voters.

    Shelby County lost the case in two lower courts before prevailing at the Supreme Court. Over those three-and-a-half years, the county’s legal team billed more than $2.4 million. The Wiley Rein LLP firm in Washington billed 4,632.5 hours of work on the case through October 2013, at an average hourly rate of $525.98.

    The judge who originally heard the case ruled Thursday that Shelby County isn’t entitled to collect the fees from the party that lost the case, the U.S. government.

    “Shelby County’s attorneys won an impressive victory before the U.S. Supreme Court,” U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote in his decision. “But as is true in most litigation, the victory came at a price. Shelby County and its attorneys, not the American taxpayer, must foot the bill.”

    The law firm that represented the county appealed that decision today.

    The Shelby County Commission, which authorized the lawsuit, was never expected to pay the attorneys, who were hired by a private legal defense fund, the Project on Fair Representation. The fund offered to finance the case on the county’s behalf and raised money through the Donors Trust, a public charity that focuses on causes involving limited government, personal responsibility and free enterprise, according to its mission statement.

    Edward Blum, who runs the Project on Fair Representation, said today that while he did raise money to finance the Shelby County case, it wasn’t enough to cover the entire bill.

    Attorneys for Wiley Rein told the court they discounted the $2.4 million amount to an even $2 million, which resulted in an average hourly rate of $431.73.

     “Shelby County not only vindicated an important constitutional principle, but literally saved thousands of formerly covered jurisdictions millions (if not billions) of dollars in… compliance costs,” they wrote.

    — Mary Troyan

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