The Campaign Legal Center is representing voters in Quitman County, Miss. against a legal action seeking more than $300,000 in attorneys’ fees – all over the challenge of a redistricting plan.
Longtime civil rights attorney Ellis Turnage brought a lawsuit on behalf of two voters challenging the county’s redistricting plan. Before trial, plaintiffs decided to dismiss the case. The county then turned around and claimed the suit was “frivolous,” seeking attorneys’ fees against Turnage and his clients.
The Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, along with attorneys at the Campaign Legal Center, filed a joint response in the case Figgs and Jackson v. Quitman County arguing the case was based on well-established law and supported by Dr. Allan Lichtman, one of the foremost experts in the field.
“This is not an isolated case,” said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “Unfortunately, we are starting to see a trend of these unsupported motions for fees, as local governments try to chill voting rights litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court, after gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, has left litigation as one of the only methods to protect voters. Already, we have too few voting rights attorneys who can bring these complicated cases. Now, livelihoods are being threatened in an effort to avoid accountability for discriminatory voting rights practices. It’s malicious, and courts should reject these motions out of hand.”
A prevailing defendant in a civil rights case can only recover attorneys’ fees if the action was “frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.”
“This is a purposefully high bar,” said Danielle Lang, CLC legal fellow. “The rule is meant only to deter nonsense lawsuits, not civil rights claims that may push the boundaries of our current law. If our system punished attorneys and their clients for these suits, we would have never seen the test cases brought by Thurgood Marshall, ultimately leading to Brown v. Board of Education, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s courageous litigation establishing equal rights protections for women. Courageous litigation strategies are largely how civil rights law has evolved throughout our country’s history.”
The Mississippi case is the second that the Voting Rights Institute lawyers at CLC have taken in an effort to preserve litigation as a robust way to protect against voter discrimination.
Just last year, CLC attorneys represented a group of voters who challenged Albuquerque City Council’s (New Mexico) redistricting scheme. CLC successfully defended the voters against a city council appeal seeking attorneys’ fees against them. Unfortunately, the city council’s unfounded motion for sanctions of $48,000 in attorneys’ fees against the voters’ lawyers, represented by attorneys at Jenner & Block, is still ongoing.
In November 2014, a district court actually granted Augusta-Richmond County’s motion seeking attorneys’ fees from the plaintiffs in a voting rights suit led by the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleged the longstanding civil rights organization filed a frivolous challenge. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that award.