High court rejects appeal over legal fees in voting case

Published 11:10 pm Monday, January 25, 2016

From Staff Reports | The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Monday that it won’t hear an appeal from lawyers representing Shelby County, Alabama, who tried to recover $2 million in attorney fees from the U.S. government in a case that nullified a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County prevailed in 2013 when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to eliminate the Justice Department’s ability to stop potentially discriminatory voting laws before they take effect.

Email newsletter signup

The county had challenged the constitutionality of a section of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get preclearance from the federal government before changing local voting protocol.

The Supreme Court struck down the provision, saying the preclearance criteria was based on outdated discriminatory practices and hadn’t been updated to reflect shifting social and political needs despite having been reauthorized several times by Congress. Justices also said the provision and its impact weren’t being applied equally.

Shelby County argued that winning the case allowed it to recover attorney fees. However, a federal appeals court said in September that Congress was not trying to encourage litigation “to neuter the act’s central tool” and parties are entitled to fees when successful litigation advances the goals of Congress.

“Shelby County’s lawsuit neither advanced Congress’s purpose nor performed some service Congress needed help to accomplish,” U.S. Court of Appeals judges said.

In May 2014, U.S. District Judge John Bates said in an opinion that the fee-shifting provision of the Voting Rights Act is meant to incentivize attorneys to pursue litigation that defends individual voting rights. Bates said Shelby County would have been entitled to fees only if it could prove its opponent’s position was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.

Calls and emails to the attorney that represented Shelby County and the county manager’s office weren’t immediately returned.