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State off the Hook for Legal Fees in Redistricting Fight

Congressional redistricting
Posted at 2:31 PM, Oct 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-09 14:31:00-04

TALLAHASSEE, FL (WTXL) -- A Leon County circuit judge said Thursday the state is not required to pay the attorneys' fees of voting-rights groups and individual voters who successfully challenged a 2012 congressional redistricting plan.

Though Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' decision is likely to be appealed, it would save the state from paying a tab that runs at least into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawyers on both sides said they did not have an exact amount of the disputed fees.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, including groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, offered a somewhat-novel legal argument in seeking the fees. That argument, which has been used in other states but not Florida, is known as the "private attorney general doctrine" --- essentially that private parties had to pursue a case of societal importance.

David King, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also pointed to the large amounts of work needed to gather information and prove that lawmakers violated the state constitution in drawing up congressional districts.

"It took a Herculean effort to pry the facts out of the Legislature and the political operatives,'' King said.

But Raoul Cantero, an attorney for the Senate, pointed to Florida legal history in saying the "private attorney general doctrine" has never been applied in the state and argued that each party is responsible for bearing their fees. He also said political parties or other groups have repeatedly paid for past lawsuits about redistricting plans.

"They happen at least once every 10 years,'' said Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice.

The arguments were the latest round in a long-running legal fight about the Legislature's compliance with the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.

Lewis in July found that a 2012 congressional map violated the constitutional standards because two districts --- held by U.S. Reps. Daniel Webster and Corrine Brown --- were drawn to benefit Republicans. Lawmakers then held a special session to redraw the congressional map, with the revised version slated to take effect with the 2016 elections.

Lewis signed off on the redrawn map, but the voting-rights groups and individual voters appealed. They have long contended lawmakers also violated the constitution in drawing districts other than the Webster and Brown districts.

King indicated after Thursday's hearing that the plaintiffs likely will also appeal the attorneys' fee decision.

While Lewis sided with the state on the fees, he rejected arguments that the voting-rights groups and voters were not the prevailing parties in the overall case. That will lead to the state having to pick up administrative-type costs for the plaintiffs.

In arguing the plaintiffs had not prevailed, Cantero said they argued that numerous districts were unconstitutional --- but that Lewis found fault with only two.

"Basically, we're talking about 10 different districts they thought were unconstitutional,'' Cantero said.

But King said it was "outrageous" to suggest the plaintiffs did not win the case.

"The most significant issue in the case was whether the Legislature acted in an unconstitutional way,'' King said to Lewis. "You found that they did."